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Endangered Right Whale has 'Fighting Chance' After Being Disentangled off Georgia Coast [VIDEO]

Feb 20, 2014 03:22 PM EST
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An endangered right whale that became entangled in hundreds of feet of heavy fishing rope off the Georgia coast has a "fighting chance" to survive after rescue workers were able to cut away most of line.

The 4-year-old North Atlantic right whale was spotted Sunday offshore near Jacksonville, Fla. and the following day a rescue response team from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, with oversight by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, completed the disentanglement effort, according to a report released Thursday.

Most of the disentanglement operation occurred Monday about 40 miles off Georgia's Wolf Island.

Officials with the Georgia DNR said that they removed more than 280 feet of commercial fishing line trailing from the whale with device called a cutting grapple, which quickly severed the line. However, rescue workers were not able to remove all of the commercial fishing line from the whale because it actively avoided the rescue boats and because the rope is likely entangled in the whale's baleen - the filter feeding structure within its mouth.

Whaling is banned under international treaty, so it is unlikely the whale was intentionally fished in US waters, but officials are uncertain of where the rope came from or the specific type of fishing it had been used for.

"Judging from its wounds, I suspect this whale had been hauling that rope for weeks or longer," said Wildlife biologist Clay George, who heads right whale research for the Georgia DNR. "It's impossible to know if he'll survive, but at least we gave him a fighting chance."

There are only about 450 remaining North Atlantic right whales. The rescued whale is known to researchers as No. 4057. Although it swam free, No. 4057 had injuries to its head and flukes.

"Responders won't know No. 4057's fate until, or unless, he is seen again," the Georgia DNR said in a statement. "Entanglement in commercial fishing gear is one of the leading causes of death and injury for North Atlantic right whales, an endangered species and one of world's most imperiled whales."

The entanglement episode highlights the need to prevent such instances from occurring, as they pose one of the greatest threats to whales, along with being struck by commercial ships.

"Disentanglement can't save every whale," George said. "The focus must be on prevention."

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