Featured Image Credit: Marine Education, Rehabilitation and Research Institute
By Shelby Hoover
An unusual surge in humpback whale deaths along the east coast has triggered a federal “unusual mortality event” declaration , the first since 2006, and further investigation.
Humpback whale populations have been steadily increasing in much of their habitat range. Humpback whales were placed on the endangered species list in 1966 when populations reached near extinction but were removed in 2016. Now, current population estimates are more than 80,000 worldwide.
However, since January 1st, 2016, an unusual number of dead humpback whales have been found washing up on beaches from Maine to North Carolina. NOAA announced that 42 humpback whales have washed up along the Atlantic coast on beaches spanning over 10 states. The average number of humpback whale deaths in the same area is 14 per year. 2017 has already had an alarming number of humpback whale deaths on the east coast. As of April 24th, 16 humpback whale deaths have been reported.
An unusual mortality event is issued under the marine Mammal Protection Act by NOAA Fisheries whenever a stranding event is unexpected and involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population.
Greg Silber, NOAA Fisheries Large Whale Recovery Coordinator, said that the investigation has only just begun, but many of the humpback whales have shown evidence of vessel strikes. Scientists conducted partial or full necropsy examinations on 20 of the whales found. 10 of the humpback whales had evidence of blunt force trauma or propeller wound. However, scientists need more consistent data before they can come to a definitive conclusion. None of the whales tested to date have had evidence of infectious disease.
It is difficult to determine the direct cause in the spike of humpback whale mortality due to their large seasonal migratory patterns up and down the Atlantic coast. Humpback whales traverse great distances following prey. Scientists are continuing to investigate possible causes in the alarming spike of humpback whale deaths.
What can you do? To assist the ongoing investigation, report any sightings of live whales in distress, stranded whales or dead whales on the beach or floating in the water offshore. Make the report by calling the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 866-755-6622, the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 877-433-8299. You can also contact the U.S. Coast Guard. Be sure not approach or touch the whale.