The North Atlantic right whale whose decomposed body was found floating in the waters off Fire Island earlier this week was seen alive last month caught up in fishing line, officials said.
Wounds likely inflicted by plastic rope confirmed he was the rare leviathan seen in the August video. Scientists had previously named him "Snake Eyes" for the twin eye-shaped scars on his head, said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist at Anderson Cabot for Ocean Life at Boston's New England Aquarium.
The fishing line that may have ended the whale's life — after he had swum in the Atlantic for more than four decades — ran through his mouth and possibly anchored his tail to the sea bed, Hamilton said.
"The real clincher was seeing that pattern of the line that had been embedded in his head which matched exactly" with the last video of him, Hamilton said of how scientists identified his carcass.
A necropsy done Wednesday at Jones Beach, where the carcass was towed by a state Department of Conservation boat, should help determine whether the fishing line killed him.
One of the few mercies is that his suffering was probably shorter than some, said Hamilton, adding: "Some of these entanglements can last weeks, months, years, and the animals will slowly die, as they can't feed and the lines cut deeper and deeper into the tissue . . . with some animals, it almost saws off parts of the body, just by the abrasion of the rope going back and forth, it goes deep into the bone."
Snake Eyes was free of fishing line when spotted on July 16 but was ensnarled when seen on Aug. 6 in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administraton said in a statement on Wednesday. Rough seas thwarted rescue efforts and then he could not be found.
"This is his first sighting since the entanglement," NOAA spokeswoman Jennifer S. Goebel said. "The team gathered information and samples, and will be reviewing them in the coming days."
Getting hit by boats or getting trapped in fishing lines are the main reasons the numbers of North Atlantic right whales have plummeted to about 400 since 1970, when they first were protected under the Endangered Species Act. "We really can't afford to lose any whale," said Michael Asaro, group lead at NOAA Fisheries.
"It's important for us to understand what these threats are — and what additional things we can do about it," said Rob DiGiovanni, the chief scientist from the Hampton Bays-based Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, who did the necropsy.
One strategy is asking people who buy fish and shellfish to ask if it is "whale-safe," mirroring campaigns to save dolphins from drowning in tuna nets, advocates said.
Asaro said NOAA is assessing Australian technology that coils fishing line at the sea bottom instead of the potentially whale-trapping vertical lines that run from pots to the surface used in this country, though currently it likely would be too costly.
Right whales, which can live six decades or longer, feed on zooplankton, often on the surface, heightening the risk of boat strikes, experts say. So does their tendency to stay within 50 miles of the Atlantic coasts — near lobstering grounds — though sometimes pregnant whales and others journey to the southeast, wintering off Florida and Georgia.
Snake Eyes first was observed in Canada's waters in 1979 and he was a pioneer, spotted off Quebec in 1988. “He started going there a full 17 years before other right whales did,” Hamilton said. Right whales might be migrating north to Canada because the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other body of water on the planet, scientists say.
Canada, critics say, has lagged in protecting right whales, only requiring vessels to slow down two years ago, and not toughening rules for fishing gear that snow crabbers use.
The Canadian government by email said it has undertaken “robust measures” to protect right whales, adding “we have greatly increased monitoring and surveillance efforts to locate the whales and ensure compliance.”
The Maine Lobstermen’s Association, which last month spurned NOAA’s entanglement-slashing plan, said “U.S. trap/pot gear represents 4%" of serious injury and mortality, while strikes by boats account for 48 percent. An association official was not immediately available to comment.
The NRDC said the group's data was flawed and estimated Maine has about 3 million lobster pots: “That anyone could argue that such a high density of fishing lines — in an area where right whales are known to migrate — does not pose a significant risk of entanglement is mind boggling. The simple truth is that both the U.S. and Canada must take action — or we will lose the whales.”