Rescue team frees right whale from rope

By Taylor M. Miles
Globe Correspondent / April 24, 2011

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A marine rescue team freed an endangered North Atlantic right whale that was tangled in rope yesterday in Cape Cod Bay, sparing the 30-ton mammal from potentially life-threatening complications.

Researchers from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies found the whale with a rope caught in its mouth that probably came from a fishing boat, officials said. The Marine Animal Entanglement Response Team worked on freeing the whale for several hours and loosed the rope by making a single cut and using large buoys.

Scott Landry, the response team’s director, said it appeared the “big, black and rotund’’ whale, which was about 35 to 40 feet long, had bitten down on the rope. The rope was so long it wrapped together behind the whale forming a loop, he said.

“The outcome of that could have been a very long and painful death,’’ Landry said.

The rescue team has seen worse entanglements, but if left unattended a whale can die after months of suffering, he said.

While the rope was only half an inch thick, it can slowly cut into the whale’s mouth. In this whale’s case, there were visible raw wounds and scars from cuts that had healed, Landry said.

The right whales come to the area to feed on plankton each spring, but Landry said there are an exceptionally high number of them close to the shore this year.

The whale is one of 473 right whales left in the population. The right whale is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, and is listed as “critically endangered,’’ according to a news release from researchers. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, a coastal and marine ecosystem preservation nonprofit group, has encountered about 50 percent of the population off the coast of Cape Cod this year. The North Atlantic right whales inhabit the ocean area around the northeast United States and Canada.

The factors contributing to the death rate of right whales include entanglements with commercial fishing gear, as well as “human-caused mortalities’’ and “vessel strikes,’’ according to the coastal studies center. The law prohibits anyone from coming within 500 yards of a right whale.

Taylor M. Miles can be reached at