An endangered whale that has been dragging heavy fishing gear for months faces “imminent” death, scientists said.

Scientists with the New England Aquarium were flying just south of Nantucket, Massachusetts, on Sept. 21 when they spotted a North Atlantic right whale trailing fishing gear and covered in lice, an indicator of poor health, according to a release from the organization.

The whale, a 17-year-old female known as Snow Cone, is a member of a dying species; fewer than 350 remain worldwide, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientists previously saw her off Cape Cod in March 2021 suffering from her “fourth entanglement in fishing gear,” according to the release.

“Eighteen months ago, there was hope that disentanglement efforts could remove enough of the gear and that would allow her to survive,” research assistant Sharon Hsu said in the release. “Now, she’s covered in orange cyamids [whale lice]. She was moving so slowly, she couldn’t dive, she just sunk. She’s suffering. There is no longer hope for her survival.”

Pulling the entangling gear requires an extraordinary amount of energy, according to scientists, and visible rake marks on Snow Cone’s head indicate the gear has taken a heavy toll.

The whale’s death will come after nearly half a dozen entanglements over a period of at least 18 months and will come on the heels of the death of her first calf, killed by a boat, and the disappearance of her second calf, according to scientists.

“When you lose any individual it’s devastating, but this is a reproductive female and we know there are fewer than 100 (of them) remaining in the population,” Heather Pettis, a research scientist in the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, told McClatchy News. “Those animals are the key for (the) ability of the species to recover. These whales can live 70 to 80 years, and we think females can reproduce for most of that time. So you’re losing 50-plus years of reproductive output. That’s devastating to this species.”

The North Atlantic right whale, which seasonally migrates up and down the East Coast, was hunted “to the brink of extinction” by the end of the 19th century, according to NOAA. Their numbers have never recovered since then, and fishing gear entanglements and vessel collisions are the species’ leading cause of death.

“We don’t have two or three more years to collect data and run analyses,” adds Pettis. “We really need to be implementing broad-based protective measures throughout the range of the species.”

Brendan Rascius, The Charlotte Observer

Correction: A previous version of this story included an inaccurate photo.