North Atlantic right whale swimming in the ocean.

Endangered Whale Killed by Maine Lobster Commercial Fishing Gear



Whales and other marine animals are consistently killed in commercial fishing gear, decimating struggling and endangered populations.

A North Atlantic right whale was killed and washed up on Martha’s Vineyard in January with clear injuries from rope entanglements. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducted an investigation, concluding the whale died from chronic entanglement of commercial fishing gear linked to the Maine lobster industry.

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This North Atlantic right whale, named No. 5120, was a three-year-old female. With as few as 366 individuals left in the world and less than 70 reproductively active females, the death of even one right whale is tragic as the species continues to struggle to recover after being an easy target for whalers in the early 20th century.

Other threats to the North Atlantic right whale population—and other endangered marine species—include vessel strikes, climate change, and noise pollution from large ships, which affect their ability to communicate, find food, and navigate.

Just weeks after No. 5120 washed ashore, another juvenile female was found floating dead offshore of Savannah, Georgia on February 14, 2024. This whale, the offspring of Pilgrim (North Atlantic right whale #4340) was first documented in December 2022 and is now the 38th mortality in the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event declarations. A necropsy concluded that her injuries were consistent with a vessel strike prior to death with blunt force trauma, including fractures of her skull, as evidence.

Since 2017, 123 individual North Atlantic right whales have been included in the Unusual Mortality Event count, with 38 dead, 34 seriously injured, and 51 sublethally injured or ill—with the primary causes being entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes both in the US and Canadian waters. These are both long-standing threats to the recovery of this IUCN-listed species.

While fishing gear isn’t the only threat to North Atlantic right whales, it’s certainly the greatest. NOAA Fisheries concluded that the rope entangling No. 5120 is consistent with the rope used in Maine state water trap/pot buoy lines, used by the Maine lobster fishing industry. The rope was observed being wrapped around the tail of 5120 for more than half of her 3-year life, digging into her flesh to the point where tissue was growing over the rope long before she perished. Scientists concluded that she spent the entire time she was entangled in chronic pain, as the rope cut deeper into her tissue as her body expanded—due to having to use her tail constantly to swim.

5120 was first observed entangled in the gear on August 31, 2022, and due to the seriousness of her injuries, was added to the government’s Unusual Mortality Event list. Despite being spotted a few times since, rescue teams were unable to remove any of the rope.

Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, described what it’s like when a whale becomes entangled in a giant fishing net back in 2016: 

“Sometimes it can drown the whale immediately, or it can happen over weeks, because they get so tired. They eventually die of exhaustion. If the gear is in their mouths, it impedes their ability to feed. It can amputate their tails or other parts of the body. And for younger whales, the gear may wrap around them, but the whale keeps growing and it cuts into their flesh.” 

North Atlantic right whales must navigate approximately 400,000 vertical buoy lines marking lobster and crab traps in coasts off of Maine, with entanglements traced back to fisheries owing to a “lack of gear-marking needs” in 70% of Maine’s waters. The Maine lobster industry continues to deny responsibility for whale entanglements. 

Whale entanglements are unfortunately not just an East Coast problem. 

Two fin whales have also died on the Pacific Coast since mid-December 2023, and a federal judge in San Francisco ruled in March 2023 that US wildlife officials are violating their legal duty by failing to protect endangered Pacific humpback whales from being killed in government-approved underwater gear off the coast of California.  

NOAA confirmed the deaths of 28 entangled whales off the coasts of Oregon, Washington, and California in 2022, plus two from the coasts of Mexico and Alaska entangled in West Coast fishing gear. Of the 30 whales, 18 were endangered humpback whales, 10 gray whales, one killer whale, and one fin whale. Three humpback whales were entangled in Dungeness crab equipment in California during the 2022 season, forcing an early closure. 

NOAA released the total number of whale entanglements for 2022 as of January 22, 2024: 67 large whale entanglements were confirmed nationally. On average, 72 large whales are entangled in fishing gear each year. NOAA has yet to release the total number of whale entanglements for 2023 as of this writing.

The commercial fishing industry is killing our oceans, plain and simple. 

Around the globe, abandoned, discarded, or lost fishing gear (also known as ghost gear) is killing countless sea animals and trashing our oceans. World Animal Protection estimates that each year 640,000 tons of fishing gear are lost and pollute the world’s oceans, killing more than 300,000 whales and dolphins annually.

According to Britannica, more than 40 percent of all animals caught by commercial fisheries are non-targeted species (by-catch) killing more than 650,000 marine mammals worldwide annually.

While many assume their consumption of fish only affects the species they’re eating, records of marine species dying in commercial fishing nets show this is far from the truth. Whether a slow death from rope around their bodies or drowning from becoming fully entangled and unable to reach the surface to breathe, it’s clear that our overconsumption of marine species is killing our oceans.  

If you think farming fish—aquaculture—is the answer, think again. Many fish raised in underwater factory farms suffer from severe depression, often floating lifelessly in their filthy, crowded tanks. 

With so many amazing plant-based seafood options, there’s no reason we cannot greatly reduce or eliminate our fish consumption to protect endangered marine life. Join our Plant-Powered Changemakers community today to find compassionate sea-inspired plant-based recipes.

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