Preliminary necropsy results on the juvenile female North Atlantic right whale that was found dead last Sunday near the Joseph Sylvia State Beach in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard showed "chronic entanglement." A conclusive cause of death for the whale, however, has not yet been determined.
The death of the young whale marked yet another significant blow to the critically endangered species - which has an estimated population of fewer than 350 individuals remaining - and reignited the debate over whether the construction of the nearby Vineyard Wind offshore wind turbine farm has created a new threat to the marine mammals. But the preliminary necropsy results indicate the whale's death was likely a familiar cause: entanglement, which along with ship strikes, are believed to be the greatest human threats to whales.
"From the necropsy, experts confirmed a chronic entanglement, with rope deeply embedded in the tail, and thin body condition," NOAA announced on Friday. "The necropsy showed no evidence of blunt force trauma. Cause of death is pending further histological and diagnostic testing of collected samples, which can take weeks to complete. We will share more information as soon as it has been confirmed."
The right whale, identified as #5120, a three-year-old female, was moved from the beach in Edgartown to the Martha's Vineyard Shipyard in Vineyard Haven, and then to Aquinnah Wampanoag Trust land where the necropsy was performed before it was buried.
The necropsy - an animal autopsy - was led by large whale experts from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, along with more than 20 biologists from the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, the Whale Dolphin Conservation, the New England Aquarium, the Center for Coastal Studies, Marine Mammals of Maine, the Virginia Aquarium, and the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative.
“In the hundreds of necropsies I have been a part of, this was one of the most heartbreaking I have led,” said Dr. Sarah Sharp, IFAW's animal rescue veterinarian. “This young whale had a deeply embedded chronic entanglement in line. Her entanglement was first identified in 2022, meaning that for nearly half of her short life, she suffered from this painful condition.”
"The future of this critically endangered species is contingent upon healthy, reproductive females and the loss of a future mother is devastating,” said Kathleen Collins, IFAW's senior campaign manager. “It is important to recognize that the path forward and this loss demands serious collaboration between industry, government, and stakeholders to prevent more mortalities. The consequences of inaction are permanent. Extinction is forever.”
NOAA maintains that vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are the greatest human threats to large whales, and has previously stated: "At this point, there is no scientific evidence that noise resulting from offshore wind site characterization surveys could potentially cause mortality of whales. There are no known links between recent large whale mortalities and ongoing offshore wind surveys. We will continue to gather data to help us determine the cause of death for these mortality events. We will also continue to explore how sound, vessel, and other human activities in the marine environment impact whales and other marine mammals."
But numerous citizen groups and commercial fishing interests are not convinced, including the Nantucket-based group ACK For Whales - formerly known as Nantucket Residents Against Turbines - which is suing to stop Vineyard Wind. Last September it filed an appeal with the First Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals seeking to overturn the May 2023 decision of U.S. District Court judge Indira Talwani, who dismissed the group's original complaint.
ACK For Whales believes that the federal agencies involved in permitting the Vineyard Wind project - including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service - failed to properly consider the impacts Vineyard Wind could have on endangered North Atlantic right whales.
“Absent an order from this Court reversing the District Court summary judgment denial, the (Vineyard Wind) Project, which is now in the inchoate stages of construction, will be permitted to continue, sending the already highly endangered North Atlantic right whale careening further down the road toward extinction,” the appeal states.