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Scientists again unable to free endangered whale

PROVINCETOWN, Massachusetts (CNN) -- Scientists headed back to shore Tuesday night after a thick fog rolled in and prevented them from freeing an endangered northern right whale whose life is threatened by a fishing rope embedded in its jaw.

The scientists managed to attach a buoy to the line, which they hope will help the animal stay afloat and keep it from tiring itself out.

It was unclear when the team of scientists would try again to free the whale, which is about 80 miles off the Massachusetts coast.

Earlier, scientists used a small inflatable Zodiac boat to get a close look at the whale. They said it appeared weaker than last week due to infection from where the fishing rope has cut into its jaw. The 50-ton whale also appears malnourished, probably because the rope is interfering with its feeding.

With the infection and weakness, there is doubt the whale will survive even if the rope is removed.

CNN's Bill Delaney reports on efforts to save a right whale entangled in heavy fishing line off Cape Cod (June 26)

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Natalie Pawekski: Saving the right whale  

Scientists were giving a high priority to the rescue because northern right whales are a seriously endangered species -- only about 320 remain in the North Atlantic.

"Every whale counts," said Nina Young of the Ocean Conservancy. Males of breeding age, as this one is, are "critical to the continued existence of this population," she said.

Time running out

The team of biologists and veterinarians that looked at the whale Tuesday said the 3/4-inch light green rope appears to have moved since the last assessment, giving hope that it might be able to work free if the long ends are trimmed off close to the whale's body, said Teri Frady, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries spokeswoman.

But time is running out. The whale is heading north for the summer, and if it goes farther than 100 miles from shore it will be out of the rescuers' range.

The rescue effort has already been delayed by weather and by a lawsuit filed by a Boston environmentalist who said sedating the whale, as scientists are considering, might kill it.

Light sedation might be needed to keep the whale from harming the veterinarians as they work on it. No procedure of this type has been attempted before on a whale in the wild, scientists said.

"It is without a question a very dangerous procedure no matter what kind of entanglement it is," Frady said. "In this case it's complicated by what we believe to be a very deep wound that has a piece of line embedded in it."

She said the line cuts into the whale's upper jaw, crosses its mouth and comes out the baleen, the sieve-like bristles that hang from the upper jaw and are used to sift small organisms from sea water.

A tracking device was attached to the whale the day after it was spotted June 8.

Right whales are the most endangered species of whale. They winter along the Florida and Georgia coasts and summer in Canada's Bay of Fundy and other undiscovered spots in the North Atlantic.

They were nearly wiped out by whaling in the past, and humans continue to pose the biggest threat to them. They got their name from whalers who considered them the "right whale" to hunt -- they are very oily and blubbery (which made them valuable), they move slowly and stay close to shore, and float for a long time when killed.

Whale watchers were encouraged this year when 30 newborns were counted -- the most in years -- but four of those have already died, two after being hit by ships.

CNN's Bill Delaney, Natalie Pawelski and Fran Fifis contributed to this report


• Center for Coastal Studies

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