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Rare whale found dead off Massachusetts may have been entangled, authorities say

A rare whale found dead off Massachusetts shows potential evidence of injury from entanglement in fishing gear, which is one of the most pressing threats to the vanishing species, federal authorities said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it was notified about the dead female North Atlantic right whale on Sunday off Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The right whale numbers less than 360 in the world and it is vulnerable to entanglement in gear and collisions with large ships.

NOAA officials said members of the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head were able to secure the whale, and a necropsy will be performed when possible. However, early observations show the presence of rope entangled near the whale's tale, the agency said.

“Due to the animal’s position, the whale cannot be identified at this time, but it is estimated to be a juvenile due to its size,” NOAA said in a statement, adding that the whales are “approaching extinction” and have suffered unusually high mortality in recent years.

The population of the whales fell by about 25% from 2010 to 2020, and saving them is a focus of conservation groups. Environmental organizations have called for tighter laws on vessel speed and commercial fishing to try to spare more of the whales from threats.

Some industries have pushed back against tighter laws. Last year, a federal appeals court sided with commercial fishermen who harvest lobsters and crabs and say proposed restrictions aimed at saving the whales could put them out of business.

Right whales were once abundant off the East Coast, but they were decimated during the commercial fishing era and have been slow to recover. They have been protected under the Endangered Species Act for decades.

The loss of a young female is especially devastating to the population, said Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana.

“This latest example should serve as a wakeup call that the status quo is not working,” Brogan said. "The survival of North Atlantic right whales requires strong leadership in the U.S. and Canadian governments to ensure fishing and boat traffic stop killing the remaining whales.”