“Unusual mortality event” is a very clinical term for what has been happening to the world’s whales. In the Atlantic, along the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., 41 humpback whales have died over the last 15 months. Ten of the deaths appear to have been caused by ship collisions, but the rest? So what’s Killing Whales?
Catastrophic Blow to the World’s North Atlantic Right Whales
Within the last two weeks, six North Atlantic right whales were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, along Canada’s east coast. While there are approximately 10,000 humpback whales in the Atlantic, the total, global number of right whales is only 500, consequently the recent deaths in the St. Lawrence exceed 1% of the entire world population. And it is possible that there could be more.
Breaking News – August 27, another North Atlantic Right Whale was found dead off of Cape Cod last week, that makes 13 that have died since June in the waters off New England and the Canadian Maritimes. This is a staggering loss for the endangered species that number just over 500. See our recent post on Whale Rescuer Killed after Saving Whale.
“The loss of even one animal is huge with animals with a population this small. Basically, every animal counts,” this number of deaths is “catastrophic” said marine biologist Tonya Wimmer.
Doing a post-mortem on a dead whale is a very big, messy job. First the whale must be towed to shore and then a team assembled to do the examination. But the work is critical to understanding what caused the deaths. Until samples can be examined marine biologists can only speculate. However, one theory is that the deaths occurred as a result of a toxic algae bloom as reported by CBC.
“This year with having only five calves born and having six die, you’re actually going backwards with the population,'” Whimmer said.
Update: Mass Slaughter of Pilot Whales in Faroe Islands
It is a tradition that goes back to the 13th century and the first Norse settlements in the Faroe Islands, located between Norway and Iceland. Annually about 800 long-finned pilot whales and Atlantic dolphins are surrounded by fishing boats and herded into bays where they are slaughtered by hunters. This is not a commercial harvest and many Faroese consider the whale meat an important part of their history and traditional diet.
The practice has been widely condemned by international animals rights groups and recently a new twist has added to the controversy. In 2008 a report published by the chief medical officer of the Faroe islands recommended that due to high levels of mercury, PCBs and DDT, that pilot whales are no longer fit for human consumption.
Unfortunately, this was unwelcome news and the government issued diluted recommendations. However, even the government’s limits severely curtail consumption to only one dinner with whale meat and blubber per month and less for girls, and pregnant or breastfeeding women. Maybe medical reality will doom the hunt where international condemnation could not. Obviously, human whaling remains one of the largest threats to whale populations. (photo – Britannica.com)
Hundreds of Pilot Whales Die in New Zealand
Last February, a mass stranding of pilot whales occurred on New Zealand’s South Island. 416 whales beached themselves at Golden Bay, some were saved however over 70% died despite the gallant efforts of a team from the Department of Conservation (DOC) and nearly 500 local volunteers including school children.
Andrew Lamason of the DOC said the stranding was one of the largest in living memory. What causes whale strandings remains unclear. Navigational errors are probably the reason for mass beachings like this and occur when the whales come to close to shore while chasing food. This is compounded by the mixed signals the whales receive when they are confronted with the tricky geography of Golden Bay. See the Guardian.
Flame Retardant, Methylmercury, DDT and PCBs
In January of 2017, Huffington Post reported that a recent study in the UK of 1000 cetaceans across Europe (dolphins, porpoises and whales) revealed the highest levels of man-made contaminants, especially PCBs ever recorded in marine mammals. The study concluded that these species are in danger of extinction from toxic pollution.
Simultaneously 73 short-finned pilot whales died on a beach in India, similar reports have come in from Japan, Australia and Chile showing that this is a world-wide phenomenon. (photo – Associated Press)
Stomachs FULL Of Plastic And Car Parts
A year ago, 29 sperm whales were stranded on beaches in the North Sea. When necropsies were performed, scientists were deeply disturbed by what they discovered in the stomachs of the whales. As reported by csglobal.com many of their stomachs were full of plastic debris including a 13 meter long fishing net and plastic car parts. (photo – csglobe.com)
This should not be so surprising considering the number of stories that cross our desks detailing the appalling quantities of plastic pollution fouling our oceans. See: Thousands of Miles Away Is Not Far Enough To Escape Plastic Pollution and Our Plastic Ocean.
What’s Killing Whales, The Causes Are Many and Poorly Understood
Rising ocean temperatures may cause more frequent and larger toxic algae blooms that lead to disease. Ocean pollution is a leading cause of whale mortality. With increased shipping there are more frequent collisions with whales. Over-fishing could cause whales to change their migration patterns. Some scientists believe that sonar noise crated by military activity causes navigational confusion and leads to strandings. (photo – NOAA)
The bottom line is that the ocean environment is not hospitable and hazards abound. Most of these hazards originate with humans and humans can eliminate them. What we need is to understand the issues of What’s Killing Whales and have a sense of urgency and purpose to make things right.
What Can You Do? Adopt a Whale!
Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) the leading charity dedicated to protecting whales and dolphins suggests that these recent die-offs are warning of a major collapse in whale populations. To support its conclusions they point to scientific studies that show that there has been a change in the size of whales. The University of Zurich studied sperm whales and found that in the 1980’s they were four meters shorter than at the beginning of the 1900’s. (photo – Amos Nachoum)
What can you do, find out more: What You Can Do to Stop Ocean Plastic Debris. To find out more about the work of the WDC and to support them or to consider adopting a whale (no you can’t keep it in an aquarium) check their website.
See Thirteen Incredible Whale Photos
by Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network
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