Seven whale strandings in five months leave scientists confused

by Rosemary An and Kiki Sideris

An unusual mortality event (UME) has plagued Long Island shores, resulting in seven whale beachings in the last five months and puzzling scientists.

There have been 23 whale strandings on New York shores since January 2017. The most recent stranding was on Fire Island, the south shore of Long Island. By comparison, there was only one whale stranding in 2006 and four in 2007.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) declared a UME in January 2016 after more than 75 humpback whales washed up along the Atlantic coast. The Marine Mammal Protection Act defines a UME as “a stranding that is unexpected; involves significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response.”

Five of the seven beached whales found in the last five months have shown evidence of vessel strikes, but scientists from NOAA and AMCS are still unsure of the direct cause.

“Everyone is trying to find a common link,” David Morin, NOAA Fisheries’ incident commander and large whale disentanglement specialist, said.

Atlantic Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) chief scientist Rob DiGiovanni explained that the two factors contributing to whale strandings are natural and anthropogenic, or human-induced. Natural factors include aging and sickness. However, sickness could also be anthropogenic, resulting from entanglement, vessel strikes and plastic found in whale food like fish.

In May, a humpback whale washed up on Long Beach with bruises consistent with a vessel strike. “Actually seeing the big beautiful creature dead on the beach was like being kicked in the stomach,” Long Beach resident Cindy Schott said. “Hearing the cause of death was due to a boat was like another kick.”

In 2017, AMCS found that 17 percent of whale and dolphin mortalities on Long Island were human-induced.

“That’s not a small number,” DiGiovanni said. “We’re definitely having some kind of an impact on these animals. To what extent, we don’t know.”

AMCS calculates its numbers conservatively because a majority of mammals are too decomposed upon discovery, making it difficult for scientists to perform conclusive autopsies, according to DiGiovanni.

Scientists are working to acquire funding for whale stranding research, says Joseph Warren, an associate professor at Stony Brook University who researches whale food. Over the summer, his team secured state funding for visual research cruises and aerial surveys on Long Island focusing on marine mammals like whales and dolphins.

“Much like college students, whales are driven by where there is food,” Warren said. With a lot of available food on Long Island shores, this is one possible explanation as to why the whales have turned up.

Another possible explanation could be the growing numbers of the North Atlantic humpback whale population.

We see whales off Long Island more and more each year,” Paul Sieswerda, President and CEO of Gotham Whales, which tracks whales in the New York City area, said.

Since there is not enough data to conclude an exact number of whales in the area, scientists urge the community to report sightings of whales, whether they are healthy or distressed, to local organizations.

The whales’ presence serves as an indicator of environmental conditions, so it is important to stay aware of them in the area, DiGiovanni added. Each stranding helps scientists understand if there are bigger issues in the environment, which can affect humans and whales alike.

“Kids on a playground are going to get cuts, scrapes, a broken bone here and there,” DiGiovanni said. “But if you start having kids come up with the same injury over and over again, you’re going to start going, ‘Oh there’s something wrong with the things on the playground.’ That’s what we’re looking at.”

Community members can volunteer at organizations like AMCS to help study this unusual mortality event. In case of a whale stranding, pedestrians can call the NYS Stranding Hotline at 631-369-9829.