Feds research whale deaths

- Dinah Voyles Pulver

Fourteen whales have washed up on Atlantic Coast beaches since Dec. 1, but marine mammal experts and some conservati­on groups urge caution before jumping to conclusion­s about why these animals and others died.

⬤ In total, at least 20 marine mammals from five species – including humpbacks, pilot whales and an orca – have been found dead on beaches from Maine to Florida since Nov. 28.

⬤ The deaths have prompted concerns as photos and stories of the whales and marine mammal rescue teams circulate online. On Wednesday, federal officials held a conference call with reporters to address swirling questions and rumors.

How unusual is it to have so many dead whales?

Whale deaths overall have been unusually high for years, with an upward trend in deaths along the East Coast, said Gilbert Brogan, a program manager with Oceana, a nonprofit ocean advocacy group.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is in the midst of three separate investigat­ions into an increase in deaths among Atlantic Coast whales.

Fisheries service officials noted that humpback whales are rebounding to some extent in the mid-Atlantic. Increasing population­s can put the animals at greater risk of interactio­ns with boats and fishing gear.

Could offshore wind energy farms be responsibl­e?

Federal officials repeatedly stated Wednesday they have no evidence to show that location surveys or offshore wind facility constructi­on have caused or could cause deadly impacts to whales and marine mammals.

Though some conservati­on groups have expressed concerns, the officials said none of the systems used in exploratio­n or constructi­on have been shown to affect, harm or potentiall­y kill marine mammals.

Work now taking place offshore involves searching for locations to place wind facilities and bury electric cables, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management officials said.

The equipment being used does not produce the powerful, high energy sound used in seismic air gun blasting for oil and gas exploratio­n, said Erica Staaterman, a bureau bioacousti­cian. It produces a narrow one direction beam for a few millisecon­ds at a time.

Because they have evidence traveling vessels could harass marine mammals, wind companies are required to have observers and acoustic monitoring during constructi­on activities.

While some question whether scientists are examining ear bones of the dead animals to look for sonar impacts, Wilkin said their large size and decomposit­ion means that’s not usually feasible.

How many whale deaths have there been?

Authoritie­s can’t say for certain how many whales die. They can only count animals that strand or wash up on beaches. It’s unknown how many die at sea. The special investigat­ions focus on three whale species along the east coast – humpback, right and minke. Known deaths include:

178 humpback whales

in the Atlantic since 2016, – an average of 25 deaths a year – and the investigat­ion is ongoing, said Sarah Wilkin, a NOAA marine mammal health and stranding response program coordinato­r.

136 minke whales

from Maine to South Carolina since 2017, an average of 25 a year.

10 critically endangered North Atlantic right whales

known deaths, on average, a year between 2017 and 2019 and 1.3 a year in 2020-2022.

51 total deaths

a year from just the three species average about 51, about four whales per month. NOAA said humpback deaths are higher in winter.

Researcher­s perform a necropsy on a whale that washed ashore Thursday in New Jersey. PROVIDED BY MARINE MAMMAL STRANDING CENTER

Where did the whales die in recent weeks?

According to NOAA, whale rescue groups and news media reports, marine mammal deaths over the past seven weeks include five long-finned pilot whales in Massachuse­tts. They also include:

⬤ New York: a sperm whale and a humpback.

⬤ New Jersey: a sperm whale and four humpback whales, including one preliminar­ily blamed on a vessel strike.

⬤ North Carolina: three humpbacks and a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale calf.

Additional­ly, an orca washed up in Florida.

Why do whales die?

For many reasons, including natural causes, but human activities increase the risks. Causes of death include:

⬤ Boat strikes can cause massive blunt force trauma, large gashes and internal injuries.

⬤ Fishing gear entangleme­nts cause injury when wrapped around flippers and flukes, and lingering, painful death when ropes and lines wrap around mouths or heavy gear drags behind the whale. An entangled 4-year-old right whale seen off North Carolina is expected to die.

⬤ Plastics can be deadly. A necropsy on a dead sperm whale in Nova Scotia found 330 pounds of plastic inside the whale’s stomach, the Marine Animal Response Society reported.

⬤ Climate change alters the food chain. Warming waters off the northeast coast send whales and their prey into areas where they encounter more vessels and fishing gear.

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