July 12th, 2016 (Mary Ann Bragg). Criminal investigation closed into death of North Atlantic right whale calf found floating off Chatham
WEST CHATHAM — The North Atlantic right whale calf whose badly cut body was found floating May 5 off Morris Island died from being struck by a vessel, according to a final determination of the whale’s death by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.
The criminal investigation into the calf’s death has been closed due to lack of evidence, despite a thorough attempt to find witnesses and conclusive evidence of vessel misconduct, a NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement spokeswoman said.
“We know we lost two calves,” Lisa Conger, a biologist with a NOAA large whale team in Woods Hole, said Tuesday about the mortality among 14 North Atlantic right whale calves born off the southeastern U.S. coastline over the winter. One of the calves that was lost was the young male off Chatham, and the second one is missing based on comparisons of mother-calf pairs in the southeastern calving grounds versus the pairs seen in the feeding grounds in Cape Cod Bay, Conger said.
North Atlantic right whales are considered critically endangered, with about 500 left in the world.
The 30-foot-long male calf killed in a vessel strike had been last seen alive on April 28 swimming in Cape Cod Bay, and was the eighth of the female right whale named Punctuation, NOAA said. Both the mother and calf were part of a group of five mother-calf pairs that had been feeding in the southwestern corner of the bay in April and early May, right whale habitat expert Charles “Stormy” Mayo of the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown said.
The necropsy of the calf performed May 6 by NOAA and whale conservation groups at a West Chatham beach showed nine vessel propeller cuts on the calf’s belly, with several extending on to the sides of the body, peduncle and tail, according to a July 8 statement from the agency. The peduncle is the part of the whale’s body that connects to its tail.
The calf had multiple fractured bones, and evidence in the soft tissue of its was consistent with what is expected when a vessel strike occurs prior to death, according to the statement.
There were no signs of entanglement on the whale and no major findings of disease or ill health, except for a possible minor viral infection. NOAA estimated the calf had most likely been dead for two to four days, but at the most five days prior to the necropsy.
Under federal law, all vessels 65 feet or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in certain locations along the East Coast at specific times of the year to reduce the threat of ship collisions with North Atlantic right whales.
The whales are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and the federal Endangered Species Act.