Why more dead whales are washing up on U.S. beaches : NPR

People look at a dead gray whale in Ocean Beach in San Francisco, California, in May 2019, a year when 122 gray whales died in the US, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last year, 47 whales died.

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Photos Justin Sullivan/Getty

People look at a dead gray whale in Ocean Beach in San Francisco, California, in May 2019, a year when 122 gray whales died in the US, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last year, 47 whales died.

Photos Justin Sullivan/Getty

Researchers are trying to solve a mystery: Why do so many humpback whales, right whales and other large mammals die along the US East Coast? One possible explanation is a change in eating habits. And while theories are circulating that blame the burgeoning offshore wind industry, the scientists say there is no evidence to back that up.

As of December 1, at least 18 reports have been made of large whales being washed ashore along the Atlantic Coast, according to Marine Mammal Network aground. The losses are affecting the populations that have been tracked, as the number of unexpected deaths continues to rise.

Sarah Wilkin, coordinator of Marine Mammal Health, said: “Unfortunately, it’s been a few years since we’ve seen large numbers of whales stranding, but we’re still concerned about the rhythms. this dam” of the deaths that have been going on for weeks. and the Stranded Response Program, said in a recent call with journalists.

Scientists are particularly concerned about the recent spike in deaths, Wilkins said, because the increase is being seen in “a relatively tight geographic area” and over a timeframe. short time.

Here’s a look at what’s happening and some of the possible reasons why:

Which whale species are seeing a spike in deaths?

On the East Coast, two species of whales – humpback and North Atlantic right whales – have each suffered a spike in deaths over the past six or seven years, according to the Atmospheric Administration and National Ocean.

The agency has declared a unusual case of death, or UME, for both types of whales. It defines UME as an unexpected stranding “involving the substantial extinction of any marine mammal population” and requiring an immediate response.

Since 2016, 180 people hunchback reported ran aground on the coasts of states from Florida to Maine. At least seven strandings were reported in 2023, including four in New Jersey — equivalent to the state’s total for 2022.

For right whales, more than 20 percent of the population has been affected by UME documents from 2017, an alarming statistic for an endangered species that was ultimately estimated to have 350 whales left. The UME number includes whales found dead, injured or sick.

On the West Coast, NOAA tracked a UME involving gray whale. Since the beginning of 2019, 303 gray whale strandings have been reported in the United States. If Mexico and Canada are included, the overall number rises to 608. More than a third of those deaths occurred in the first year of UME; The numbers have plummeted since then.

All three previously mentioned whale species were hunted to near extinction. And while gray and humpback whales have recovered, right whales remain an endangered species, with more deaths than births each year.

What about disruptions from offshore wind farms?

Even if soon caught a sudden humpback, The question has been raised about the harm that can be caused to whales by wind farms. Those questions have evolved during the current bull run, as interest is increasing offshore wind projects require the use of powerful equipment to map the ocean floor.

The questions have only gotten bigger over the past two months, as crews carried out surveys off New York and New Jersey to dig into details of the seabed, both to find out where they might be located. premises and where cables can be run.

The New Jersey-based Clean Ocean Action team has call to stop sea wind projects and an investigation into possible harm to whales. State and local officials have join that effortalong with some Members of parliament.

But officials from NOAA and other agencies are dismissing suggestions that wind farms could somehow contribute to whale deaths.

“There is no known link between any offshore wind activity and any whale stranding, regardless of species,” said Benjamin Laws, deputy director of licensing and conservation at NOAA. Fishery, said in a short call.

Erica Staaterman, a bioacoustician at the Ocean Energy Administration’s Center for Marine Acoustics, says the type of equipment being used in the area isn’t as problematic as projects like oil and gas exploration. sea.

“Those things in oil and gas are called seismic airguns, and they’re specifically designed to go kilometers to the bottom of the sea. So they’re a very, very large source of energy,” Staaterman said. In contrast, she added, the tools used to prepare offshore wind sites are “high-resolution geophysical sources, and they are often smaller in terms of the amount of acoustic energy they deliver.” into the water column.”

“Many instruments are used for very short periods of time with long periods of silence in between,” says Staaterman, adding that some instruments also produce a “very narrow cone sound” instead of radiate in all directions.

“I just want to be clear,” Laws stated, “there is no information to support any suggestion that any equipment is being used to support wind energy development. [to perform surveys] can directly lead to the death of a whale.”

So what is killing the whales?

Overall, experts say human interaction is the leading factor in whale deaths, either through collisions with ships or entanglement with ropes and other fishing gear.

That’s a particular threat this winter, when animals that are usually prey to whales are believed to have come close to shore, NOAA officials said. That change causes humpbacks and other whales to follow suit, creating more overlap where whales and ships share the same waters.

And as Wilkin notes, an increase in whale populations could be a factor. “As the abundance of whales increases, we will have more whales in different places,” she said.

For right whales, the agency says human interaction is the leading cause of death. NOAA says about half of the humpback whales that died in the recent spike were autopsied to some degree. Of those, about 40% showed evidence of a train crash or entanglement.

The cause of whale death can only be determined under certain circumstances, partly due to the difficulty of examining whales that have died in the wild, from their enormous size to the different possible states of decomposition. happen.

As for UME affecting Pacific gray whales, the cause has not been determined, although the researchers note that of the dead whales examined, some of them had ” evidence of emaciation”.

One thing the UMEs taking place on both sides of the coast have in common is their vast scale: Although historically some UMEs have been heavily localized, tracking maps show cases Landings of humpback, gray whale and right whales have occurred along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

It’s a stark contrast to previous mass deaths, like 14 humpback whales died of biological poison in 1987 — all in one area around Cape Cod, Mass. In that case, the deaths were attributed to saxitoxin, which is produced by red tide algae and can accumulate in mackerel — which the whale then eats.


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