19 Aug 2019 - Kristin Hugo - If you care about the environment, it’s time to start talking about the 640,000 tons of discarded fishing gear killing ocean creatures.
Ongood days, Dr. Sarah Sharp gets to watch living North Atlantic Right Whales. The school-bus sized, dark creatures, with scoop-like mouths and white spots on their face, sometimes launch themselves out of the water, like leaping ballerinas. They’ll breach and play with each other, a behavior once thought to be a mating display, but was later found to take place outside of the mating season. It’s likely the animals are just socializing, having fun with the other whales.
Sharp also enjoys watching them feeding peacefully. “They literally just mow the grass underwater with their mouths open, filter feeding with their baleen, getting all the little crustaceans out of the water column,” Sharp explained. “It’s kind of a zen like experience to watch these animals, going so smoothly along, just under the water surface.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Sharp, a veterinarian and marine mammal stranding coordinator at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), mostly looks at dead whales. And none of the whales she has studied in the last 16 years died a natural death after a long life.
Sharp is the lead author of a recent study published in the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms. The study, spearheaded by the International Fund For Animal Welfare, focused on determining causes of death for North Atlantic right whales between 2003 and 2018.
When a North Atlantic right whale dies, they sometimes wash ashore, or are found out at sea, floating in the water. When someone reports an animal, a scientist can perform a necropsy, or animal autopsy, to try and figure out how the creature died. The researchers who provided data for this study found the cause of death of 43 whales. 88 percent, or 38 animal deaths, were human-caused. The study doesn’t include 2019 deaths — in June alone, six more North Atlantic right whales have been found dead.
16 animals from the study died from ship strikes. 22 died from getting entangled in fishing gear. That means fishing gear alone killed more than half of North Atlantic right whales, out of the ones whose deaths we know the cause of, in the past 16 years.
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