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Whale deaths on East Coast trigger alarm

Coast Guard personnel examine a dead right whale Tuesday. Found floating about 80 miles east of Nantucket, Mass., the carcass will be examined by scientists.
Coast Guard personnel examine a dead right whale Tuesday. Found floating about 80 miles east of Nantucket, Mass., the carcass will be examined by scientists.U.S. Coast Guard via AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Four North Atlantic right whales have been found dead off the East Coast in the past six weeks — including two just this week — alarming scientists given that the species had been on the brink of extinction.

A dead North Atlantic right whale was spotted off the coast of Georgia on Wednesday, a day after one was found off Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. Two were found in December off Virginia and Nantucket.

Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium, said biologists hope to perform autopsies on the whales found this week to determine the causes of death.

“What we do know is losing that number of animals in such a short period of time puts us generally on a slippery slope to extinction,” he said.

Two of the four dead whales were pregnant females.

Population has been recovering
There are currently between 325 and 350 of the whales known to scientists. That’s an improvement from 2000, when the population was counted at about 300.

A group that has been monitoring deaths and injuries to right whales said Thursday that it fears the U.S. Navy is responsible for at least some of the incidents, pointing out that one of the pregnant females that died since December was rammed by a Navy ship outside Chesapeake Bay.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said that while the Navy had informed the group that its vessels were exercising greater caution in the migratory corridors of the Atlantic right whale, no one was monitoring the Navy to ensure that takes place.

“The Navy’s belated concessions, while welcome, may be inadequate because so long as the Navy remains the sole arbiter of the adequacy of its actions, we will continue to see more tragic accidents,” Kyla Bennett, PEER's New England director, said in a statement.

Activists: Voluntary steps not enough
Last month, the federal fisheries agency, which oversees right whale recovery, said the Navy had agreed to take certain measures to reduce ship strikes on right whales.

But PEER claimed that the Navy "refuses to even consult" with the agency "on naval operations in the mid-Atlantic that affect right whale survival."

PEER also noted that while the federal government last year said it would consider adopting ship speed limits and traffic changes in certain areas, it "has only urged voluntary cooperation" since then.

“Right whale recovery just suffered a crushing blow, with more than 1 percent of the entire population lost in a matter of weeks,” Bennett said. “If right whale extinction is to be avoided, we can no longer afford to wait for additional calamities before taking effective action.”