A large number of humpback whale mortalities along the United States’ East Coast has scientists concerned. 41 humpback whales perished between Maine and North Carolina in the last 15 months, prompting a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) investigation. NOAA veterinary medical officer Deborah Fauquier said the quantity of whale strandings is alarming.
NOAA refers to the mass death as an Unusual Mortality Event (UME), and at a news conference yesterday officials said they don’t know the reason for the high number of them. The agency examined 20 of the 41 whales. NOAA data shows in an average year, eight humpback whales are stranded between Virginia and Maine, and less than two whales perish after being hit by ships. But in this UME, 10 whales have died after colliding with ships in 15 months. NOAA does not know why the other 10 whales examined died, but there’s no evidence disease was the cause.
Scientists have said marine noise could be a factor in whale mortalities; the noise could disorient the animals and send them toward beaches where they become trapped. Military activities or offshore drilling or exploration can create marine noise. It’s not clear if that’s what’s happening with these mass deaths; NOAA marine resources manager Gregory Silber said he does not know of a link between marine noise and the recent strandings. He said ship traffic has not increased in the East Coast area; instead the whales could have followed prey like krill or small fish into regions with higher levels of ship activity.
NOAA said the most important way members of the public can help is by reporting dead whales or living whales that are stranded or in distress. They said people shouldn’t touch or approach whales but should call the phone numbers provided on their website.