One of the few remaining individuals of the rarest whale species in the world is now “likely to die” after becoming severely entangled, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday. 

The 4-year-old marine mammal is a North Atlantic right whale, a species with only a few hundred remaining members.

The whale, identified as #4904, was first seen wrapped in lines on Jan. 8 by an aerial survey team from Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The team found the whale roughly 20 miles east of Rodanthe, North Carolina, with “several wraps of line around the mouth and tail” and more line trailing behind it, NOAA said

Data on the decline of the North Atlantic right whale.

NOAA Fisheries

Those lines have left her with “numerous wounds across her body and whale lice on her head.” 

“After reviewing documentation of this new entanglement case, NOAA Fisheries biologists have made a preliminary determination that it meets the criteria of a ‘serious injury,'” the agency said Thursday. “This means the whale is likely to die from this injury.” 

At the time she was found, NOAA said it was “too late in the day” for an entanglement response team to go after her and she was too far from shore. However, the agency is working to find her again in an attempt to free her from the lines. 

The young whale is the daughter of another tracked member of the right whale species, an adult female named “Spindle,” who was recently seen with her tenth calf off the coast of Georgia. This was the first time that Spindle’s daughter had been seen since May of last year in Massachusetts Bay, NOAA said, at which point she was not entangled. 

The North Atlantic right whale is among the rarest whale species in the world. And the critically endangered species is fighting for survival amid an ongoing unusual mortality event that has left fewer than an estimated 350 whales of the species remaining, hitting the lowest population numbers in nearly 20 years in 2021. NOAA said that #4904 is the 94th right whale to be documented in the event since 2017 and the 22nd case of serious injury.

If she does die, it only further strains the ability of the species to continue. Female right whales are not able to reproduce until around the age of 10, and currently, researchers believe there are fewer than 70 female right whales left who actively reproduce. The animals are pregnant for a year and can only give birth to one calf at a time, and often only have calves every six to 10 years on average

Since 2017, when the unusual mortality event began, only 57 whales have been born. This amount is far below what is needed, however, as the species must produce 50 or more calves a year for multiple years to stop the species’ decline. 

Humans remain the leading cause of the species’ decline, primarily from entanglements and vessel strikes, NOAA data shows. Since its onset in 2017, 11 whales have been killed by vessel strikes while nine have died after becoming entangled. Twenty have been seriously injured from being entangled. 

The news of this young whale comes just weeks after it was discovered that a humpback whale by the name of Moon rose to national attention. A vessel strike left the whale with a broken spine and unable to use her tail to propel her through the ocean. But even still, she managed to capture the hearts of many who learned of her, as she swam 3,000 miles from Canada to Hawaii on one “last journey.”