Researchers tested the approach on a young North Atlantic right whale off the Florida coast last week, The Associated Press reported Sunday. The whale had about 50 feet of fishing rope wrapped through its mouth and around its flippers.
Following the whale in a small vessel, the team shot it with sedatives from a dart gun so they could pull closer and untangle the ropes. They then attached a satellite monitor, which now shows the animal survived the incident.
Fishing ropes pose a serious threat to the dwindling population of right whales. The gear cuts into their flesh and limits their ability to feed, ultimately causing infection and starvation.
Experts typically trail lines from tangled whales and attach them to boats and buoys to create drag, allowing them to slice the ropes from pole-mounted knives.
But the process can be tricky, since right whales often attempt to flee or dive underwater.
“They’re likely in a lot of discomfort,” Jamison Smith of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told AP. “They don’t want to be … harassed by a small boat.”
With a population of only 300 to 400 worldwide, right whales are thought to be the most endangered large whale. The animals feed off the coast of New England and Canada in the summers, and migrate southeast to the waters off Florida and Georgia for breeding season in mid-November to mid-April.
NOAA initially proposed drugging whales in 1999, in an attempt to disentangle an afflicted right whale swimming off New England and in the Canadian Bay of Fundy. Researchers mounted a syringe on a 30-foot pole so that they could inject the whale from a boat.
In the most recent case, scientists used an airgun that fires a 2-foot dart containing sedatives.
“There was a noticeable decrease in speed,” Smith said of the 2-year-old right whale sedated off the coast of Port Canaveral, Fla. “There was a noticeable decrease in boat evasiveness.”
Satellite data from the attached tag shows the whale is heading north toward New England.