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Scientists made a heartbreaking discovery about a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
The whale, named Snow Cone, is tangled in "heavy" fishing gear in what is at least her fifth entanglement, according to a Sept. 22 press release from the New England Aquarium.
The aquarium's aerial survey team spotted the entangled whale while flying south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, on Sept. 21.
In addition to the new gear caught on the whale, the team also identified the fishing gear the mother whale became entangled in some time before December 2021 — around when Snow Cone gave birth while entangled in fishing rope — still stuck to the marine mammal.
Snow Cone's first calf was killed by a boat, and the calf born during her entanglement has not been seen since April. After the second baby whale's birth, scientists were concerned about whether Snow Cone could effectively nurse the calf in her state.
After spotting the whale last week without her calf, the team documented the whale's situation, taking photos and notes for "potential disentanglement efforts." One scientist, Sharon Hsu, who had previously photographed Snow Cone, was "shocked" by her health decline.
"Eighteen months ago, there was hope that disentanglement efforts could remove enough of the gear and that would allow her to survive," Hsu said. "Now, she's covered in orange cyamids [whale lice]. She was moving so slowly, she couldn't dive, she just sunk. She's suffering. There is no longer hope for her survival."
Both the "heavy" presence of orange cyamids — indicators of poor health — and rake marks on Snow Cone's head further illustrate the impact the entanglements have had on the whale. While there was previously hope for her survival, now, according to the release, Snow Cone's death is "all but certain."
The aquarium said that Snow Cone's tragic case — one of five whales observed with attached gear this year — shines a necessary spotlight on the "urgent need for dramatic changes to fixed gear fisheries, including accelerating the transition to ropeless or 'on-demand' gear."