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Canada - Repeatedly snarled in fishing gear, a scarred right whale fights for survival

Until he was 28 or so, a North Atlantic right whale named Meridian spent most of his time in the Bay of Fundy, swimming mouth open through zooplankton and sieving prey through his teeth-like baleen.

A scar runs across his head, forward of his blowhole — a big arching line, like a meridian line on a globe.

Many other right whales have similar scars, caused by the all too common occurrence of entanglement in fishing gear as they migrate up and down the Eastern Seaboard. On June 30, Meridian was seen snarled up for the fifth time by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). Now 38, he swims mostly around the Gulf of St. Lawrence after climate change-induced warming in the Gulf of Maine disrupted previous feeding habitats.

DFO spotted Meridian again on July 7 but said bad weather prevented them from trying to remove the fishing gear. He hasn’t been seen since, which although not unusual, is concerning because fishing gear entanglement is the leading cause of death for right whales, which have been listed as endangered since 2005 under the Canadian Species at Risk Act. Numbers have steadily decreased since 2011 when the population was at around 481. Now, there are approximately 350 right whales.

DFO, Transport Canada and the U.S. government have taken some steps to curb the decline, including slowing boat speeds and closing some areas to fishing seasonally or in response to whale sightings. But experts say there are additional measures that could save whales — such as changes to rules around types of fishing gear — that aren’t being enacted.

Meridian’s mother, Slash, was likely killed by a ship strike in 2011, the other main cause of right whale fatalities. Before her death, Slash and Meridian were photographed together by the New England Aquarium (NEAQ), which has used photo-identification to document the whales since the 1980s. Individual right whales are recognizable by callosities — patches of tissues that serve as habitat for little white crustaceans — the pattern of those patches making it possible to identify them from photographs.

Marine biologist Philip Hamilton, senior scientist at NEAQ who has studied the species since 1986, said he recognizes the different whales and can name them when he sees them. The aquarium maintains a species-wide catalogue of all photographed right whale sightings, called the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. Although he doesn’t remember the first time he saw Meridian, he has lots of memories from his days in the field (he now does more administrative work) spotting him and other whales.

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