Age of Extinction: Another North Atlantic right whale dies raising 2019 toll to 10 for a species with just 400 left

Snake Eyes, a North Atlantic right whale, was found dead off Long Island last week. So far, there have been 30 deaths, 10 of those this year alone, largely due to fishing gear entanglements or ship strikes

                            Age of Extinction: Another North Atlantic right whale dies raising 2019 toll to 10 for a species with just 400 left
(Getty Images)

Last week, a well known and highly endangered North Atlantic right whale named Snake Eyes was found dead off the coast of Long Island, New York. With only about 400 of them alive in the world's waters, the species is spiraling fast into extinction.

Unfortunately, Snake Eyes, who was fondly called so by scientists at the New England Aquarium because of the two scars on his head that looked like a pair of eyes when he swam wasn't the first one to die in the recent years. He was at least 40 years old. 


In fact, according to marine activists, this year alone we've lost 10 right whales and that follows the death of 17 more in 2017 including in both Canada and the United States. That puts the number at 30 whales we've lost in the two countries' waters since 2017, which is roughly 7 percent of the entire population. These spates of death are attributed to reduced calving rates (which were 12 in the same time frame of the deaths) and lackluster protection.  

Despite being protected for over 50 years, the species has not recovered

Kristen Monsell, Oceans Program Litigation Director who works on North Atlantic right whales for the Center for Biological Diversity urged the two countries to take immediate and strong action to ensure the species' survival and promote its eventual recovery. "This includes implementing additional seasonal closures of fisheries to protect the whales while they’re feeding and migrating, and significantly reducing the amount of vertical line in the water, including through the use of ropeless fishing gear," she said. 

A full-scale model of Phoenix, a North Atlantic Right Whale, is seen on display at the Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural HIstory during a press preview September 24, 2008 in Washington, DC. The model was made from images of the actual whale currently being monitored by scientists. The hall, showcasing the ocean and its many connections to humans opens to the public September 27. AFP PHOTO/KAREN BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

The right whales, which were the first to be hunted by American whalers, get their name from being considered the "right" kind of whales to hunt because of their slow movement and the fact that they float after dying. Despite being protected for over 50 years, the species has not been recovered. The North Atlantic right whales call the Atlantic ocean their home. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) announced September 10 the extension of the voluntary vessel speed restriction zone southeast of Nantucket, Massachusetts, through this week to give the whales room. This is done with the intention of reducing the risk of serious injury and mortality of right whales and while it is a step in the right direction, it is neither fast or far enough, said Monsell.

Adult right whales never grow old, they die first

Snake Eye, Wolverine, Clipper, Punctuation and Comet are among the few right whales that have been killed due to various causes in the ocean. Punctuation, who had been studied by researchers for nearly 40 years was killed in June this year after being injured by a vessel.

A reproductive female, she had had 8 calves in her lifetime. With her death, her female lineage is extinct, according to Anderson Cabot Centre for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. All of the mentioned whales went through entanglement in fishing gear at least once in their lifetimes, often severe.  

Snake Eye's necropsy was conducted after his carcass was found to determine the cause of death. The final findings will be available anywhere in a few days to a few months, NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Jennifer Goebel said.

Prior to his death, when he was last seen alive on August 6 he had been caught in rope in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada. He looked like he was being dragged down and experts believe he could have been anchored to the bottom. The rope had been going through his mouth all the way to his tail, they said. On September 16, he was found floating south of Fire Island, New York. 

Like most of his species, he didn't get to grow old. Two human causes – fishing gear entanglements or ship strikes – kill them first, said Jane P. Davenport, Senior Staff Attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. Three right whales killed last year in the U.S waters were killed because of the first reason, fishing gear entanglement, she said. 

Fishing gear entanglements in the vertical lines used in trap or pot fisheries for lobster and crab remains the leading cause of right whale mortality, also reducing birth rates, she added. According to an estimate, from 2003 to 2018, 51 percent of all right whale deaths diagnosed was because of entanglements. 83 percent of these whales also have scars from previous such entanglements. 

Reduce vertical commercial fishing

The most effective solution would be to reduce the vertical fishing lines that occur in the areas where the right whales are, like New England and Atlantic Canada, which are hundreds of thousands by number. There's a need to impose speed limit zones on ships as well, Davenport said. 

MISCOU ISLAND, NB - JUNE 7: Pierre-Yves Daoust, a member of the core investigation unit, directs other scientists during a necropsy of a right whale on Miscou Island in New Brunswick on June 7, 2019. This North Atlantic right whale - among the most endangered species on the planet - was known by researchers as Wolverine, for three propeller cuts on its tailstock that reminded them of the trio of blades used by the comic book character of the same name. (Photo by Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Oceana's Campaign Director Whitney Webber agrees with her - there is a need for a dramatic collaborative effort. "The U.S. and Canadian governments must work together and take aggressive action to prevent North Atlantic right whales from becoming extinct," she said reiterating that reducing the number of vertical fishing lines in the water and requiring ships to slow down can help save this species.

Webber also recommended the two governments need to also additionally implement effective fisheries closures that remove threats to right whales when they are present, modify fishing gear and practices to reduce the likelihood and severity of entanglements, enhance fisheries monitoring and require public tracking of fishing vessels, enact seasonal restrictions where right whales frequent and short term ones in areas where they are detected as well as financially aid research, monitoring and risk reduction for right whales in the long term capacity. 

What is required to do to save them from extinction is not a mystery, said Davenport. "The only missing piece is the political will to take decisive, effective, and immediate protective measures before it’s too late," she said.

If you have a news scoop or an interesting story for us, please reach out at (323) 421-7514