By David Pendered

State environmental officials continue to watch the waters off Georgia’s coast for a North Atlantic right whale tangled in a potentially deadly mess of line that looks like commercial fishing gear. This endangered species is Georgia’s marine mammal.

The blue line of suspected commercial fishing gear trails behind North American right whale No. 1803, a 33-year-old male spotted off the Georgia/Florida coast on Jan. 11. Attempts to remove the entanglement have not yet been successful. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute_Taken under NOAA research permit 18786

“The entanglement is considered life-threatening,” according a statement the Georgia Department of Natural Resources provided in response to a request.

Meanwhile, federal authorities are considering a measure to further protect the creatures from getting tangled in commercial fishing gear. The public comment period is open through March 1 and 5,201 comments had been received as of Sunday evening.

An environmentalist in Savannah who raised concerns about the entangled whale, and the public comment period, said the incident reminds that immediate action is needed to protect right whales. Paulita Bennett-Martin, head of Oceana’s office in Georgia, observed in an email:

  • “We know what the two major threats are when it comes to the future of North Atlantic right whales, they are getting entangled in fishing gear and hit by boats. This is not new; but it’s now coming to a point of little room to turn this disaster around.
  • “If we want to save North Atlantic right whales one of the things we must do is reduce the number of fishing lines in the water. This entangled whale off the Georgia coast is letting us know this. Oceana is urging the U.S. government to act now to strengthen protections before it’s too late.”
The North American right whale named Champagne, and calf, were seen about 3 nautical miles east of Amelia Island, Fla., on Jan. 2021. Whale 3270 is 12 years old and this is her first documented calf, according to GDNR. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute Taken under NOAA permit 20556-01

In addition, in a bit of related news, the 14th North American right whale calf of the season has been spotted of Georgia’s coast – the creatures’ only known calving ground. This is the first calf known to be born to Champagne, a 12-year-old whale.

GDNR posted a video of a mother and infant swimming last week off Wassaw Island.

The births are significant because this species is nearly extinct. If all 14 infants survive, fewer than 390 North Atlantic right whales would be known to exist.

North American right whales suffer two major causes of death: Entanglement in commercial fishing gear and being hit by ships, according to a lawsuit filed Jan. 13 in U.S. District Court in Washington that seeks more protection against ship collisions.

The entangled whale was spotted Jan. 11 at a location about 10 miles off the Georgia/Florida border, according to a statement provided late Jan. 22 by GDNR spokesman Rick Lavender. No further news of the whale has been reported.

The day after the whale was spotted, he eluded efforts to place a tracking device on the creature. Heavy seas contributed to the unsuccessful efforts. The purpose of attaching the device was to track the whale so that rescue crews could find him as the seas settled and they would be able to attempt to unravel the fishing gear, according to the statement.

The whale is known to be a male, 33 years old and tagged as No. 1803. The number in the tag enables scientists to be able to track the creature over time.

GDNR provided this full report on the entangled whale:

A close up image shows the commercial fishing line tangled around the tail of North American right whale No. 1803. Credit: Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute Taken under NOAA research permit 18786
  • “A Clearwater Marine Aquarium Research Institute aerial survey team spotted the 33-year-old male (#1803) about 10 miles offshore of the Georgia/Florida line on Monday, Jan. 11.
  • “Efforts by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources that afternoon and by DNR and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Tuesday, Jan. 12, to attach a tracking buoy proved unsuccessful because of the whale’s evasive behavior and rough seas. 1803 could not be found Wednesday, Jan. 13. Weather and other factors grounded flights until normal right whale surveys resumed Sunday, Jan. 17. As of today [Jan. 22], 1803 has not been seen again.
  • “No targeted searches are planned for now. But if 1803 is spotted and weather permits, DNR and FWC teams will try to respond and attach the tracking buoy and disentangle the whale. The rope is wrapped tightly around the whale’s tail and attached to part of an apparent fish/shellfish trap. The entanglement is considered life-threatening.
  • “North Atlantic right whales, which calve off the Georgia/northeast Florida coast, are federally listed as endangered and considered one of the world’s most imperiled whales. As of 2019, there were fewer than 375 left. Entanglement in commercial fishing gear is one of the leading causes of right whale deaths, according to NOAA.”

David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written...

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