A research vessel for the federal agency charged with protecting the endangered right whale hit one of the animals off the Massachusetts coast this weekend, cutting into the animal's left tail fluke with its propeller.
Officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the lacerations suffered by the animal in Sunday's accident did not appear to be life-threatening.
But the accident shows how difficult it is to protect the animal, even with the extraordinary precautions taken by a NOAA boat, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a Plymouth-based biologist with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society.
"To me, if it can happen to NOAA, it can happen to anybody," Ms Asmutis-Silvia said. "Therefore, everybody needs to up the ante and up their vigilance and take the issue much more seriously."
Ship strikes are the leading human cause of death of the North Atlantic right whale, which has a population of 350 to 400, after being hunted nearly to extinction in the late 18th century.
The lumbering animal is particularly vulnerable to ship strikes because it becomes oblivious to its surroundings when it feeds on plankton slicks, which are often just below the surface.
The NOAA vessel Auk was returning from a research trip when the whale surfaced about 10 feet in front of it, NOAA spokesman David Miller said.
The Auk followed the whale for about 45 minutes, after the accident and the animal appeared to be OK, he said.
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