Snow Cone, a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale known for giving birth to a calf while entangled, seemed to be thriving. But after her calf mysteriously disappeared, Snow Cone’s health began to worsen, and the impacts of her entanglement began to take a heavy toll on her. Months later, Snow Cone, herself disappeared, her fate unknown. Snow Cone is just one of the many whales that have been harmed by human activity. Entanglements and boat collisions, the leading causes of death in whales, threaten the lives of thousands of whales each year. But what can be done to save them?
Beneath the blaring sun, the crying gulls, and the lashing waves, she whistles. She isn’t the singer that her father or her brothers were, but she maintains a steady rhythm as she swims. Her eyes scan the deep blue abyss, searching for a hint of familiarity. She was less cautious in her youth. She would scratch the sea's surface with her mother, the cool winds passing over her back. In the distance, hordes of fishing boats would linger as lines and nets sank into the deep. Occasionally, larger vessels teeming with eager onlookers would follow along, erupting into cheers as she passed. Her mother was a great performer: she would dive beneath the surface with a grand splash, flaunting her tail before she receded into the water, ready to carry on with her daughter. It was curious, to observe and be observed. But after her friends and distant relatives began to vanish following their journeys to the shores, she became cautious. With every passing day, the threat of death grew nearer: just last month, one of her brothers was found dead after a terrible boating accident. And as time passed, she could not help but notice the growing mass of white fishing line hanging from her sister's mouth. As she surfaces, welcomed once more by the eager crowds, she is left to wonder: will she be the next body to wash up on the sandy shores?
While this may seem like some tragic mermaid’s tale, the threats of boating and fishing are irrefutable. An alarming number of whales are harmed and killed by entanglements and vessel collisions. Many beached whales have been found along the East Coast of the United States—at least 23 since the end of last year. Of these whales, 18 have been found in the New York-New Jersey area alone. While all whale species are threatened by human behavior, some face more dire circumstances than others. North Atlantic right whales are particularly at risk. These whales are currently classified as critically endangered on the IUCN red list, and there are fewer than 400 of them left. They previously experienced massive population decline from whaling, but are now threatened by boat collisions and entanglements. Their populations continue to plummet: just this January, one North Atlantic right whale washed up on a North Carolina beach, and one month later, another was found dead in Virginia.
Whales are facing a wide variety of threats, but entanglements, bycatch, and collisions are some of the most prevalent. Complex solutions are needed to target the obstacles that whales face, but not many are currently implemented. Solutions can include monitoring fishing and the use of fishing gear during whale migration periods, establishing methods to identify the origin of abandoned gear, and patrolling coastal regions that are frequented by whales to ensure their cleanliness.
Snow Cone, a North Atlantic right whale, found a way to beat the odds: although her first calf had died in 2020, and she was entangled in over 300 feet of rope during her second pregnancy, she gave birth to a healthy calf in 2021, an incredible feat. North American right whales normally give birth about every three years, but in recent years the average time between births has doubled. Therefore, the 2021 birth of Snow Cone’s calf was not only notable due to the severity of her entanglement but also because only a year had passed after Snow Cone’s first calf died. Despite her circumstances, Snow Cone and her calf have been sighted 12 times since the calf's birth.
Following a sighting of Snow Cone and her second calf in late April 2022, an unsettling change took place: the calf suddenly disappeared, while Snow Cone appeared to be suffering from her entanglement. In July of the same year, she was spotted again without her calf, with worsening injuries and an unexpectedly thin body. By September 21, 2022, Snow Cone was spotted carrying additional fishing gear, covered in whale lice, and in even worse shape than during her last sighting. Then, just like her calf, she disappeared. Snow Cone’s current whereabouts and status are unknown, but since she was last seen in extremely poor condition, likely, she will never be seen again.
Fishing can be especially devastating to whales. Whales are often entangled in discarded fishing gear and other waste. These entanglements can happen often: there were a total of 76 large whale entanglements in 2017 (about one occurrence every five days). So-called “ghost nets,” fishing nets that are abandoned in the ocean, can also present a threat to whales and other wildlife. In 2020, for example, divers in Italy freed a sperm whale that was entangled in one of these dangerous nets. While entanglement may seem to be an immediate death sentence, in cases such as Snow Cone’s, it can spell a slow, painful death. As a result, rescuers will often try to remove as much rope as they can without harming or endangering the whale. In Snow Cone’s case, even though several feet of fishing line were removed from her body, she continued to accrue more and more lines over time, especially as she weakened.
But rescue efforts can still prove to be extremely effective: in 2011, Chiminea—an entangled North Atlantic right whale—was rescued by the Marine Animal Entanglement Response Team. Rescuers cut away the large rope that was caught in her mouth, freeing her from her entanglement. Ten years later, Chiminea would give birth to a calf. Despite her success, Chiminea’s past conditions almost seem to foreshadow the unfortunate fate of her sister, as Snow Cone would disappear only eleven years later. Furthermore, other efforts have been made to reduce the number of injuries and deaths suffered due to fisheries. The NOAA, for example, developed the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan in 1997 to try to address bycatch and fishery-related incidents, but the problem persists.
Moon was a humpback whale. Much like Snow Cone, she was also a mother: in 2020, she was sighted traveling with a calf. In September of 2022, as she passed along the west coast of Canada, Moon was discovered to have suffered a terrible accident. Her once straight spine was curved into an S shape, and she was no longer able to use her tail. Just three months later, she was seen again 3,000 miles away, on the coast of Maui. Her condition had worsened, and she was covered in whale lice. Since the December 2022 sighting, Moon, much like Snow Cone, has not been seen again.
Vessel collisions can be extremely dangerous for whales, as they can cause serious and sometimes fatal injuries. This damage is not limited to large, towering ships: even jet skis can present a risk to whale survival. Despite the potential consequences of vessel strikes, the actual number of collisions in a given year is unknown: while the NOAA notes that, over four years, 37 whales were killed in the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast of the U.S. and Canada, other estimates are far more grim. The number of annual whale deaths resulting from ship collisions may be as high as 20,000, and many collisions go unreported. Moon, the aforementioned dying humpback whale, likely received her spinal injury from a boat collision. The North Atlantic right whale found dead on a Virginia beach was likely also killed in a similar incident. Ultimately, vessel collisions are a serious threat to whale survival, and this issue must be tackled to prevent the decline of species like the North Atlantic right whale.
What Can Be Done?
While whales face a variety of threats, we can begin to address these issues through education, legislation, and community effort. Communication and accountability are important aspects of whale conservation. Education and outreach programs can help both boaters and fishermen exercise caution when at sea. In addition, because entanglements are so prevalent, holding fisheries responsible for leaving waste behind may help to limit the amount of discarded fishing lines in the waters. Rewarding fisheries that properly responsibly dispose of their fishing waste can also promote better fishing practices. However, an accurate system will need to be developed to identify which fisheries are leaving their gear behind and which are conducting proper cleanup procedures. For example, fisheries could be required to label their nets and other equipment with the fishery's name or logo. Since September of 2022, for example, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission has required freshwater fishermen to include identification tags or markings on fishing gear. Adopting a similar policy for ocean-based fisheries can be useful as if someone comes across abandoned gear, it would be far easier to track down the company or group that left it behind. While it may not be possible to place these large characters and images on fishing lines, fisheries may be able to use certain color codes to identify their business. For example, fitting birds with a combination of colored bands can be an extremely effective technique for quickly identifying re-sighted individuals. Using a similar color code system for the fishing line can provide an easier method of determining its origin. Furthermore, a barcode may be placed on a fishing rope, with each fishery having a unique barcode. Upon collection, these codes can be scanned, providing information about the rope’s owners. These identification systems would not only allow for fisheries to be held accountable for their actions but would also encourage more responsible waste management policies.
To ensure that whale migration paths are relatively clear of fishing gear and other dangerous detritus, small diving groups can patrol areas along these paths. These groups can conduct dives to search for abandoned fishing lines and ghost nets, working to remove them from ocean habitats. This would not only help to protect whales from entanglement but also promote the survival of other marine species.
Perhaps in the future, throngs of small boats will part through the mist, gently moving through the fog. As one body dives into the waters below, another will ready themselves, their legs dangling off the edge of their vessel. Soon, they follow the first, and another takes their place, looking over the gear and double, triple-checking that everything is prepared before meeting the cool blue surface. At first, their work will be demanding: they will cut away at seemingly endless clumps of plastic and metal, wondering if their efforts are in vain. They may come across their pressing emergencies: a sighting of an entangled whale, a barrage of calls to local rescue organizations, a quick rush to pull away as much fishing line as possible, and a collective sigh of relief as a mass of waste falls loose from the whale’s mouth and she dives below, following the whistles of her cautious sister. Perhaps eventually, after years of tireless work both on land and in the sea, they’ll find fewer stray lines, fewer ghost nets haunting the waters they patrol, and maybe just a few more Atlantic Right whales migrating to and from their feeding grounds.
Although many whales have suffered and died from human activity thus far, we can forge a better future for the creatures that live alongside us before it’s too late.