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Young female right whale found dead on Martha's Vineyard beach

The North Atlantic right whale in seen on a beach in Edgartown on January 29, 2024.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute/Michael Moore. Taken under NOAA Permit # 24359.
The North Atlantic right whale in seen on a beach in Edgartown on January 29, 2024.

A critically endangered right whale has washed up dead on the beach at Cow Bay in Edgartown.

Initial examinations identified it as a young female.

The cause of death hasn't been determined, but in an email, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offered additional information about the condition of the animal.

“Preliminary observations indicate the presence of rope entangled near the whale’s tail (around the peduncle),” wrote Andrea Gomez.

Boat collisions and entanglements in roping and fishing gear are the leading causes of death for the whales, whose population stands at just 350.

On the scene was Misty Niemeyer, who conducts post-mortem exams for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

“We're just working to secure the carcass,” she said. “Unfortunately, the conditions are a bit tough out here today with the storm. But we're working as quickly as we can to put a plan together, with many partners, so we can hopefully do a full exam later this week.”

Neimeyer said IFAW is working closely on next steps with the Massachusetts Environmental Police and local responders, including the Edgartown Police, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

“We're going to be doing a full exam, both externally and internally to look for causes of death,” she said. “We’ll be looking to identify the individual animal as well.”

Since 2017, at least 55 North Atlantic right whales have been killed or seriously injured by boat strikes and entanglement in rope and fishing gear. This marks the first time right whale has been found dead in Massachusetts since 2018.

Gib Brogan, campaign director at Oceana in the United States, called the news devastating.

“This death is even more troubling when it is a female calf that could have gone on to have many calves of her own for decades to come,” he wrote. “The recovery of North Atlantic right whales cannot take any more setbacks.”

The news comes comes just weeks after a calf was spotted off the coast of South Carolina with propeller wounds on the head, mouth. That whale is expected to die.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.