Image: Entangled right whale
This young North Atlantic right whale was spotted off northeast Florida on Christmas Day with fishing rope wrapped around its head.
updated 12/31/2010 5:26:36 PM ET 2010-12-31T22:26:36

A severely entangled North Atlantic right whale — a species whose numbers are down to just a few hundred — was swimming off Florida on Friday after experts managed to cut off much of the fishing ropes holding it back.

"The team successfully removed more than 150 feet of ropes wrapped around the whale’s head and fins, and cut portions of entangling ropes that remain on the animal," the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a statement.

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"We were very concerned about this whale as the entangling ropes appeared to be life threatening," said NOAA official Jamison Smith. "Given the efforts of the disentanglement team we are optimistic the whale may shed the remaining ropes on its own, so we will continue to monitor its condition via aerial surveys and intervene again if necessary."

The whale, 30 feet long and thought to be less than 2 years old, was first spotted off Daytona on Christmas Day by a team doing aerial surveys to spot right whales. Those teams alert ships to any right whales so that they can then alter course to avoid potential collisions.

"The team was able to attach a satellite tracking buoy to the trailing lines," NOAA stated.

In recent days, experts worked to remove ropes and wire mesh material "similar to what is found in the trap or pot fisheries for fish, crab and lobster," NOAA said.

The waters off northeast Florida and Georgia are the only known birthing grounds of the North Atlantic right whale.

The whales spend summers feeding off New England and Canada, then swim southeast where females give birth from mid-November to mid-April.

Scientists typically find one or two entangled right whales in the southeast each year.

"With only 300-400 in existence, North Atlantic right whales are among the most endangered whales in the world," NOAA said. "They are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fixed fishing gear are the two greatest threats to their recovery."

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