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Right Whale Day in Mass. marked during tough year for species

carcass of right whale 5120
New England Aquarium, taken under NOAA research permit #25739
Right whale female “Fission” ( Catalog #3790 ) with unnamed juvenile male whale Catalog #5191 during an aerial survey over southern New England waters in March 2023.

Today marks the second annual Right Whale Day in Massachusetts.

The public is invited to spend it at the New England Aquarium, where beginning at 11 a.m. officials will discuss conservation efforts with Calvin, a 42-foot-long inflatable right whale, in the background.

The event falls just weeks after one of the critically endangered whales, a male known to researchers as #4143, was seen entangled off Rhode Island with rope coming out of both sides of his mouth.

Entanglement is a leading cause of death for North Atlantic right whales, whose population has fallen to around 350.

Erin Burke, the state’s protected species specialist, said her office is working with the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown to find #4143 before it’s too late.

“Both teams are just ready to go,” Burke said. “If we spot that animal and conduct that disentanglement, we'll get the gear back and analyze it. And I'm sure we'll be able to figure out where it came from.”

It’s been another tough year for North Atlantic right whales. Since January, four have been found dead, including one that washed up with entanglement wounds on Martha’s Vineyard. Another three are missing and presumed dead, and more were likely killed, their deaths undetected.

Meanwhile, researchers have identified 19 calves this calving season. Every year they hope that number will be closer to 30. But there’s some relief this time of year, when the majority of North Atlantic right whales can be found in Cape Cod Bay, where lobster fishing is effectively banned during the whales’ visit and boat speed limits are strictly enforced.

“Massachusetts is such an important habitat for these animals,” Burke said.

Officials say they’re working on reversing the negative trends.

They say they hope Right Whale Day will be part of the solution. Shortly before leaving office, then-Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation recognizing April 24 as a day to promote preservation of the critically endangered animal.

“I like that concentrating message of 'Here's what we're doing, here's why it's important. Here's what's happening in your backyard,'" Burke said.

In Massachusetts, the Division of Marine Fisheries will receive more than $4.6 million from a congressional appropriation to increase ongoing research and monitoring, develop on-demand or “ropeless” fishing gear, and provide that gear to lobstermen for testing.

The pot of money is one of the things officials will highlight today at the New England Aquarium.

For those who can’t make it, experts generally say the best way to honor Right Whale Day is to support efforts to reduce entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with boats via policy and consumer buying habits.

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

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