Dead whales keep washing up along the East Coast. What’s going on?


Twelve 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 least18 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 try to address swirling questions and rumors.

Final results of their investigations aren’t yet available. Based on preliminary reports, it’s likely a variety of human activities may be responsible for some of the deaths.

Here’s what is known so far:  

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 also 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.

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.

  • Critically endangered North Atlantic right whale deaths averaged 10 known deaths a year between 2017 and 2019 and 1.3 a year in 2020-2022.

Total deaths a year from just the three species average about 51, about 4 whales per month. NOAA said humpback deaths are higher in winter.

A dead humpback whale was found on the beach at Assateague Island National Seashore on Jan. 16, one of more than a dozen whales reported dead along the U.S. Atlantic coast since Nov. 28.

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:

Additionally, an orca washed up in Florida, the first killer whale death ever reported in the Southeast.

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 – A necropsy on a dead sperm whale in Nova Scotia in November 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 new areas where they encounter more vessels and fishing gear.

Climate change effects: How climate change disrupts our daily life, fuels disasters across the world

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 local conservation groups have expressed concerns, the officials said none of the systems used in the 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.

Dig deeper

Right whales: ‘Things are grim for the species’: Endangered whales continue to decline in Atlantic

Declining species: Right whales giving birth a cause for excitement, but not enough to save endangered species

Speed limits in the ocean?: Massive ships are killing endangered whales each year.

Offshore energy: Wind turbines are coming to a coast near you. Will Biden’s ‘audacious’ goal pay off?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Whale deaths on the East Coast: What to know about washed-up whales



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