The North Atlantic right whale found dead this week off Long Island, N.Y., has been identified as a 40-plus-year-old male who had been seen this summer entangled in fishing gear in Canadian waters.
The whale, known to researchers as “Snake Eyes,” was last seen entangled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in August, after being seen there free of gear in July.
“This is his first sighting since the entanglement,” said Jennifer Goebel, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Scientists at the New England Aquarium called the whale Snake Eyes because of two bright white scars on the front of his head “that look like a pair of eyes when he swam towards you,” they said Wednesday.
Given his age and his propensity to be in known mating areas for right whales, the scientists said, “One would expect him to be one of the great fathers of the population.”
“The loss of Snake Eyes is a tragedy, but a tragedy made that more grievous knowing” that he’s the ninth right whale to die this year, said Philip Hamilton, a senior right whale scientist at the aquarium.
The whale had been towed Tuesday to Jones Beach State Park on Long Island, where researchers from the Long Island-based Atlantic Marine Conservation Society worked with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Center for Coastal Studies, organizations based in Massachusetts, to perform a necropsy on Wednesday.
The researchers did not disclose the cause of death, though the entanglement is suspected.
Entanglement has been the leading cause of death in recent years for right whales, whose population is believed to have declined to fewer than 400, a drop of more than 20 percent over the past decade.
A study by scientists at the animal welfare group found that, when a cause of death could be determined, 64 percent of right whales died as a result of entanglements in fishing gear since 2010. The rest died as a result of being hit by ships. Scientists say that only about half of dead whales are found.
The danger of entanglements led a team organized by NOAA this year to recommend that the agency require lobstermen to reduce as much as half of their buoy lines in the Gulf of Maine. The lines rise from traps on the seafloor to buoys at the surface.
That proposal sparked a backlash among lobstermen and their representatives. This summer, Maine’s governor and the entire congressional delegation sent a letter to President Trump, urging him to direct NOAA to delay or reject the proposed regulations. Moreover, the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, which has a seat on the team that came up with the proposed regulations and initially supported them, announced recently that it was withdrawing support.
With few right whales found dead in Maine waters, the association has argued that the proposed regulations would be unfairly onerous for the lobster industry, which generates about a half-billion dollars a year for the state’s economy.
On Wednesday, more than a dozen right whale scientists from the region sent a letter to the congressional delegation of Maine, urging support for the proposed regulations.
They noted that the 3 million buoy lines from Maine lobstermen account for nearly 90 percent of all fishing lines in the Gulf of Maine, and that right whales are known to inhabit the state’s coastal waters.
The nine right whales found dead this year represent the second highest number of known deaths in one year. In 2017, a record 17 right whales were found dead. Last year, there were no calves born.