BOSTON — After three failed rescue attempts, a rare right whale with marine rope jammed in its jaw off the coast of Cape Cod is likely to become the third human-caused right whale death this year.
The death of the 50-ton whale, dubbed Churchill, would be a major blow to the fragile North Atlantic right whale population, but some say the situation highlights difficulties in efforts to protect the endangered species that numbers about 300.
Competing interests in the fishing, shipping and conservation communities have clogged a process already hampered by inadequate funding, critics say.
"We're still losing whales," said Ann Bucklin of the Northeast Consortium, which funds cooperative research into fishing gear modifications. "That's unacceptable."
Fishing gear entanglements and ship strikes are the top known manmade killers of the whales. Regulations to reduce both risks have been enacted since 1997, though conservationists say more is needed.
But developing new fishing gear in conjunction with fishermen takes time. Meanwhile, the federal government doesn't have control over international shippers, further complicating efforts to slow down ships or route them around whale feeding areas.
"We are trying to merge a lot of viewpoints and strike that middle balance," said Teri Frady, spokeswoman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It is an involved process, it's a public process and it takes time."
The right whale got its name from whalers because its abundant blubber and buoyancy after death made it the "right" whale to kill. It's been in trouble in the North Atlantic since the 13th century, when as many as 60,000 were killed.
For the past four weeks, scientists have been monitoring the deteriorating condition of "Churchill" about 100 miles off Cape Cod. They've tried twice unsuccessfully to sedate the whale, and other attempts to disentangle the line have not worked. An infection caused by the line will likely prove fatal, scientists say.
The population of the right whale is threatened by recent low birth rates, said Moira Brown, a scientist with the Center for Coastal Studies. This year's encouraging report of 30 new calves came after years of bad news, as births dropped from 22 in 1996 to one in 2000. But four of the new calves have died.
"This is one of those unfortunate species that interacts with man entirely to its detriment," Bucklin said.
The whales feed in shipping lanes, and huge vessels traveling at up to 20 knots can't see them and can't stop quickly enough to avoid them.
Nina Young of The Ocean Conservancy, a Washington-based environmental group, advocates ship travel at a whale-safe speed of 10 to 13 knots, but ship owners are reluctant because of the loss of efficiency.
Moving shipping lanes requires approval by the International Maritime Organization, which the federal government has no direct control over, though Frady said international shippers have said they want to protect the whale.
Fixed fishing gear — such as vertical lines on lobster traps and gillnets — is also a danger.
Modifications aim to weaken the gear enough so an entangled whale can break free, but not so much that fisherman can't use it.
Bill Adler, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association, said new gear needs time to work, and added entanglements with fishing gear are relatively rare.
"Fishermen are always getting blamed, and they're getting sick of it," Adler said. "They're getting belligerent. Some are saying, 'Maybe it's time for the whale to go extinct."'
Right whale advocates are asking for $10 million in federal funding next year, about double the amount allotted to protect the whale this year, Bucklin said. But approval is questionable, the bureaucracy is thick, and time is short.
Ultimately, that leaves the long-term prospects of saving the whale uncertain, said Marilyn Marx, a whale expert at the New England Aquarium.
"I think it's possible," Marx said. "I don't know if it's really probable."