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NOAA: Right whale found in Virginia Beach was killed by vessel

People take photos of a whale capsized on a beach
Laura Philion
A male North Atlantic right whale washed up at Chic's Beach on Feb. 13.

Read the original story on WHRO's website.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials say the whale that washed ashore on Chic’s Beach last week was hit by a vessel.

Virginia Aquarium and NOAA scientists necropsied the 43-foot-long North Atlantic right whale the day after it washed up in the Virginia Beach neighborhood.

They said the whale died shortly after a collision caused what NOAA called “catastrophic” blunt force trauma.

The North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium maintains a catalog of all right whales photographed, along with last known sightings. The dead whale was identified as No. 3343, a 20-year-old male.

It’s the fourth large whale to be stranded on Virginia beaches this year, but the first North Atlantic right whale. The other three were humpbacks, which have bounced back from the brink of extinction and are now lauded as a conservation success story.

For the past six years, North Atlantic right whales have been dying at an unusually high rate. Dead, injured and sick whales make up more than 20% of the total population, worrying researchers and contributing to the whale’s critically endangered status.

Right whales were hunted extensively between the 17th and 19th centuries. Whalers identified them as the “right” whale to hunt for their valuable supply of whale oil and baleen — the whale's filter feeding system that's sometimes called "whalebone."

Right whale hunting was banned worldwide in 1949, but numbers have continued to decline due to net entanglements and vessel strikes — their two main causes of death.

In the statement confirming 3343’s cause of death, NOAA added a disturbing fact. Between 2003 and 2018, human activity caused all deaths of North Atlantic right whales in which the cause of death is known.

“Beyond the first year of life, right whales are not living long enough to die of natural causes,” officials wrote.

There are maritime speed limits in effect near all major ports in and around the Chesapeake Bay. All vessels 65 feet or longer must travel at 10 knots or less in an effort to avoid colliding with whales.

There are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales left.