Monica Zani  /  New England Aquarium
This juvenile right whale was found dead off the Georgia coast on Dec. 30.
updated 1/4/2007 10:13:33 AM ET 2007-01-04T15:13:33

A rare North Atlantic right whale was lacerated multiple times and killed by a ship off the Georgia coast last week, causing scientists to again sound the alarm on these endangered creatures.

Fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales exist. In 2006, six were found dead, four of which had been killed by ships and one of which became entangled in fishing gear. The whales spend summers in the north and migrate down the East Coast in late fall to calving grounds off the coast of Georgia and Florida.

On Dec. 30, researchers spotted the latest dead whale about 10 miles east of Brunswick, Georgia, and towed it to shore. It was a juvenile, more than 40 feet long.

The beast had 20 large propeller cuts along the right side of its head going down its back, researchers said this week. Michael Moore of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution performed a necropsy on the whale and determined it died of the "massive, deep lacerations."

According to a statement released by the New England Aquarium, "scientific studies have shown that the precarious population cannot withstand this level of human-caused mortality."

The National Marine Fisheries Service has tried to develop rules to protect the whales, including reducing ship speeds on a seasonal basis in areas frequented by right whales and rerouting shipping lanes around primary feeding grounds. Bureaucracy has prevented progress.

"The process has been impeded because of internal conflict between federal agencies about whether and how to implement such rules, and strong opposition from affected industries who are resisting the need to change business-as-usual to protect this beleaguered species," said Amy Knowlton, who studies right whales at the New England Aquarium.

Pacific right whales, similarly at risk, were awarded protective rules last year.

"We know how to reduce human-caused right whale deaths through common sense measures that are not onerous to industry," said Tony LaCasse, a spokesperson for the New England Aquarium. "Now we need to implement these solutions in a timely fashion. The urgency of the situation is obvious. The extinction time clock on North Atlantic right whales might be rapidly winding down."

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