(PIX11) — Heartbreaking and distressing images of beached whales stranded on the shores of New York and New Jersey, captivated people nationwide.
There has been a string of recent incidents, baffling experts and the public. Scientists, animal advocates, and lawmakers are divided over what’s causing these mammals to wash ashore. One thing all seem to agree on: it’s happening too frequently. PIX11 News took an in-depth look at the issue.
In late January, a 35-foot-long male humpback whale washed up on Lido Beach on Long Island. It was the 10th to wash up in our area in just two months, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, said while there is a slight uptick in recent months, strandings have been on the rise in the last seven years. Kim Damon-Randall is the Director of NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources.
“We actually declared an unusual mortality event or an UME for humpback whales back in 2016 because of an elevated number of whale strandings that started that year,” said Damon-Randall.
Since 2016, NOAA has been tracking elevated humpback whale mortalities — 191 in total — along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida. There have been a total of 36 in New York, and 28 in New Jersey.
Just weeks after the Lido beach incident, a dead minke whale washed up on Rockaway Beach in Queens and a humpback in Manasquan, New Jersey. Necropsies performed on these recent cases showed the mammals were likely struck by vessels out at sea.
“We recommend that boats, that if whales are in the area, boats go less than 10 knots. That helps to reduce the risk of a vessel strike,” Damon-Randall added.
New York and New Jersey ports have seen larger cargo ships and far more traffic in recent years. Mandatory slower speeds are already in place at certain times of the year to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whales. Advocates want that regulation expanded to protect all mammals year-round.
Another explanation may have to do with the new areas where they’re looking for food. Their prey is moving closer and closer to shore. They follow, leading them into more possible human interaction, into space shared by vessels and by people. Dr. Lesley Thorne is a professor at Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.
“Whales that are observed on shore waters are pretty much exclusively juveniles,” said Thorne. “It’s possible their surface foraging behavior might put them at higher risk of vessel strikes.”
Large whales’ preferred prey is menhaden and experts say the whale food swims in pathways with more ship traffic. Marine biologists add other human interaction — fishing gear and trash — can also disrupt the habitat of large mammals.
Dr. Thorne and her team have been studying the effects of climate change on oceans. Her team shot drone video as part of their research into the foraging behavior and body condition of humpbacks in the New York bight. That research was funded by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
“I wouldn’t say the increase in sea surface temperature in the northeast U.S. is necessarily going to cause an increase in strandings, but rather that we’re going to see different species stranding in different regions,” said Thorne.
Maxine Montello is the rescue program director at the New York Marine Rescue Center in Riverhead. This is their busy seal pup season. They received 45 calls of stranded seals in a recent one-week period.
“These animals strand from Montauk all the way through Staten Island and also up the Hudson River,” said Montello.
She showed a seal that’s been in their care for weeks.
“This animal was actually entangled so a huge issue here on Long Island is animals are getting entangled in fishing gear, ghost nets, so this animal had fishing line wrapped around her body.”
NYMRC has also rescued 94 stranded turtles in two months. She said climate change and the lack of seasonality have disrupted the cues marine mammals look for.
“Seasons are becoming longer so they’re staying here longer,” said Montello. “We’re really losing those winters so with no snowfall means animals can stay here much longer.”
The strandings and mortalities are also sparking concerns about the effect offshore wind development may have on marine life, but NOAA scientists steadfastly say there’s no data to support the claims. What all seem to agree on is that the beachings happen too often.
“While we are trying to do our best to reduce these stranding events they are likely going to continue to occur,” said Damon-Randall.
If you do come across a stranded mammal, don’t touch it or try to move it. Experts say to call NOAA’s 24-hour stranding hotline at 1-866-755-6622.