The New Yorker: Spying on Whales to Save Them

One foggy morning last April, a dead humpback whale washed up on New York’s Rockaway Beach. It was a young male, thirty-one feet long, and had extensive bruising—the result of contact with “something very large,” according to Kimberly Durham, of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, who performed the necropsy. The Rockaway whale was one of sixty-eight humpbacks that have died between North Carolina and Maine since 2016, casualties in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is calling an “unusual mortality event.” And humpbacks, it turns out, are not the only species suffering. Last August, noaa declared another unusual mortality event, this time for North Atlantic right whales: eighteen of the endangered animals have died recently. Then, in January, the agency announced that minke whales were getting stranded, too: twenty-one have died. The occurrence of three simultaneous and ongoing cetacean mortality events along the East Coast is not just unusual; it is unprecedented.

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AMCS Performs Necropsy on Stranded Humpback Whale in Atlantic Beach

Even during the holidays, Atlantic Marine Conservation Society is prepared to be in the field promoting conservation of the marine environment through action. As the lead large whale response organization in New York State, our nonprofit organization responds to calls of deceased marine mammals and sea turtles 24-7. The day after Christmas is no exception.

 Nassau Police Photo of the Deceased Humpback Whale in Atlantic Beach

Nassau Police Photo of the Deceased Humpback Whale in Atlantic Beach

On Tuesday, December 26, 2017 we prepared to respond to two strandings on opposite ends of Long Island. The first was for a deceased common dolphin that washed ashore in Montauk, and the second was for a deceased humpback whale that washed ashore in Atlantic Beach. While part of the necropsy team conducted a necropsy on the common dolphin with National Park Services that day, the rest of the team began formulating a response plan for the 33-foot humpback whale. 

Whale necropsies take several hours, and with considerations for daylight and the tide in mind, the response was scheduled to take place the following day on Wednesday, December 27, 2017. Atlantic Beach in the Town of Hempstead is a popular area, and news of the whale spread quickly. AMCS worked with the Town of Hempstead's Department of Conservation and Waterways, Bay Constables, and Department of Sanitation, Marine Mammals of Maine, Mystic Aquarium, Stony Brook School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences, NOAA Fisheries, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Long Beach Department of Public Works to secure the whale, set up a work site, and follow safety procedures on day with temperatures below freezing to perform the necropsy. The team was joined by media and members of the community interested to learn more of what was going on.

The necropsy took several hours to complete, and samples were sent to a pathologist to help determine a cause of death. Following the necropsy, the whale was buried on the beach. Members of the community expressed interest and concern in this disposal method, and AMCS biologists spoke to individuals about why this method was chosen. Education is an important aspect of our work, and we greatly appreciate the support of the community in our efforts. 

Below is a joint statement from Atlantic Marine Conservation Society and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries about the burial:

Burial on the beach is the most natural way to dispose of deceased whales, and is the primary disposal option for large whale carcasses around the country. This has been an effective means of disposal for more than 40 years, and the whale stays contained on the beach. Animals are buried high on the beach near the base of dunes to mitigate concerns of erosion. There have been a number of studies that assess leachate from disposal sites, however the primary focus has been contaminates and other disease agents. Leachate from a burial site is extremely slow and likely flows down into bottom sediment. Burial, similar to composting, aids in breaking down biological material faster and therefore remains to be a viable option for large whale carcass disposal.  

There have never been any issues with oil/blood leaching from a burial site into the water that would attract sharks. In the event blood or oil is leached, it would be slow and the dilution factor would be so high it would be highly unlikely to be detectable by sharks. The concern with spreading disease comes from the public touching the animal. Once the animal is necropsied and the animal is buried, the risk of disease transmission is mitigated. Being made into smaller pieces after the necropsy also aids in its decomposition.

It is illegal for people to dig up the whale, or keep any pieces including bone. Marine mammals are federally protected, and only authorized organizations may respond to these animals. NOAA fully supports the ongoing efforts by AMCS to respond to large whale stranding events and to use burial as a disposal option to maintain public health and safety. 

As a nonprofit organization, we truly appreciate all of the organizations involved that were instrumental in these efforts. We ask that the public help by reporting strandings to the NYS Stranding Hotline by calling 631.369.9829.

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Newsday: Record number of dead whales near Long Island in 2017, group says

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Original story published in Newsday by Laura Blasey and John Asbury:
Marine life experts are looking for answers after a record number of dead whales were reported around Long Island this year.

Though final numbers are still pending, both Long Island’s Atlantic Marine Conservation Society and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries’ Atlantic branch are reporting a spike in injured and dead whales. A 33-foot humpback found dead Tuesday at East Atlantic Beach marked the 14th deceased, stranded whale in the society’s New York records this year. Most of the 14 were found on Long Island.

For comparison, there were four large whale deaths in 2016, eight in 2015 and six in 2014, according to AMCS. A decade ago, reported deaths were even fewer: just one in 2006 and four in 2007.

“This is a very dramatic year we’ve had,” said Robert DiGiovanni, chief scientist and executive director of AMCS, which recently completed its first year of whale stranding response.

Scientists say higher whale activity in the area due to increased fish populations could be one reason more whales are being stranded or getting struck by ships.

A necropsy Wednesday on the 20-ton female whale at East Atlantic Beach was inconclusive, AMCS said. The whale was buried on the beach, which AMCS and NOAA said is the most natural way to dispose of deceased whales.

The whale’s death is the latest in what NOAA has called an “unusual mortality event” among humpback whales on the Atlantic coast in 2016 and 2017. Similar deaths also have been seen in other whale species.

NOAA experts were not available for comment, but the agency said last month that 58 humpbacks had been reported dead from North Carolina to Maine from January 2016 to last month, with eight of those in New York. Based on necropsies conducted on about 20 of the whales, experts said about half had evidence of ship strikes.

Locally, NOAA and AMCS experts aren’t the only ones seeing an increase.

Gotham Whale, which tracks whales in the New York City area, has been getting up to seven sightings per day off Long Beach and in the Rockaways. More than half the recent whale deaths Gotham recorded have been caused by ship strikes, said Paul Sieswerda, executive director of Gotham Whale.

About 20 years ago, scientists might have seen one whale a year stranding on Long Island, according to DiGiovanni, who has worked in marine conservation for decades. The new frequency is about one every 63 days.

One possible explanation is increased populations of fish that whales feed on, like bunker fish, in more urban New York waterways, drawing whales to the area more frequently. In 2015, experts said fish population movements were responsible for a spike in whale sightings in Long Island Sound.

But Sieswerda said it’s still unusual to see whales during the winter months, even with more fish.

“They’re usually gone by this time of year and migrate past Montauk without coming in our area,” he added. “The last few years, they’ve been coming into our area in greater numbers every year.”

DiGiovanni said scientists are exploring other factors that could bring more whales to shore, like currents. But that work requires data, and he said scientists at AMCS have to wait until testing results from several whales come back in the spring.

NYS large whale deaths
2017: 14
2016: 4
2015: 8
2014: 6
2007: 4
2006: 1

Source: Atlantic Marine Conservation Society

Read the story and find additional photos from Newsday here.

NOAA Fisheries: Atlantic Marine Conservation Society Joins NOAA’s Marine Mammal Stranding Response Network

In January 2017, we welcomed a new stranding response partner, Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, to the Greater Atlantic Region’s marine mammal stranding response network. Led by veteran marine animal responder Rob DiGiovanni, the new organization focuses on promoting marine conservation. AMCS is New York’s primary response organization for live large whales and for dead marine animals, including whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea turtles. AMCS also responds to entangled whales and sea turtles, surveys and monitors marine animals populations, and conducts ocean-based outreach and educational programs for the Long Island community.

Read the full story here.

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AMCS Works with Stranding Network and Community to Return Reynolds Channel Whale Back to the Ocean

Last week, Atlantic Marine Conservation Society worked to monitor, assess, and develop a plan to help a humpback whale in Reynolds Channel return to the ocean. While herding efforts ultimately were not utilized as we believe the whale finally made its way out on its own, AMCS is still thankful for all of those that were involved. Here's the story...

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The event began with a call from The Nature Conservancy on Friday, November 10. A member of their organization had seen a Facebook video that showed a humpback whale swimming in Reynolds Channel. Sightings since then had been sporadic, but AMCS kept it on their radar. After another few sightings the following week, AMCS joined the Town of Hempstead Bay Constables on the water to survey the area and assess the whale. The whale was around 30 feet in length, and appeared to be behaving normally, breathing well, and swimming freely. A warning was issued to mariners by the United States Coast Guard to let them know the whale was in the area, and to exercise caution. Over the next two days, a team with AMCS and other organizations continued to monitor the whale's behavior and survey the area.

Throughout monitoring efforts, the team also began to develop a plan for response should various outcomes occur. As the animal appeared to be healthy, a plan to begin herding was formulated. Though herding efforts have historically been unsuccessful for baleen whales, AMCS biologists explored and planned for this option since this whale was free swimming but seemed unwilling to travel under the easternmost bridge to the ocean.

On Friday, November 17, the team opted to do land-based surveys only. This was to ensure the safety of the team because of high winds that made it dangerous to go on the water, and also give the whale some space as well. It is important that animals like these do not become used to boats as it could alter their future behavior. Humpback whales are large, wild animals, and it is dangerous to get close to them. Interaction can cause stress and result in agitated behavior. As with all wildlife, it is best to limit interaction as much as possible, and allow animals the opportunity to return home on their own. This whale was likely in its teen years, and behaved as such, exploring an area it shouldn't be. 

On Saturday, November 18, the team aimed to put a herding plan into action. The herding team was comprised of three authorized vessels: a US Coast Guard boat, a Bay Constable boat from Town of Hempstead, and a fire boat, to encourage the whale toward the closest outlet to the ocean. Biologists with AMCS, NOAA Fisheries officials, and veterinary support were staffing these vessels and leading the herding operations. Safety is of the utmost importance for both the teams on the water and the whale. The day's plan also included periodic breaks to limit stress to the whale. Members of the community were asked to limit time on the water, or if possible stay clear of the area, so the team of professional and experienced staff could work to get the whale back out to the ocean. 

The day's operations included survey boats staffed with volunteer naturalists from local organizations that were tasked with monitoring the bays and canals that the whale had been observed swimming through in previous days. In order to minimize the interaction with the whale during herding operations, the NYS DEC Enforcement officers and Nassau Marine Patrol were on the water as the security team, and were tasked with notifying boaters in the vicinity of herding operations to alter their course or halt if the whale was proceeding in their direction. Survey teams positioned on land were also part of the plan, documenting the on water activities and searching for the whale. All divisions of the plan were integral to the success of the operation, and AMCS would not have been able to attempt to assist the whale back to sea without all the partners involved.

With all of this in mind, our team was cautious in these efforts to ensure safety. After extensively surveying the area this on Saturday, the team did not locate the whale. Because of this, we are optimistic it has returned to the ocean! Other whales had been observed in the surrounding areas, which is normal behavior. The team took photos document these whales, and also compare the photos taken of the whale in Reynolds Channel to see if it could be identified among this new group. Hundreds of photos were taken, and it may be some time before we can get a positive ID. 

Atlantic Marine Conservation Society and NOAA Fisheries Service extend gratitude to collaborating partners during this effort: NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Town of Hempstead Bay Constables, International Fund for Animal Welfare - IFAW, U.S. Coast Guard Jones Beach Station, Nassau County Marine Bureau, Nassau County Police Department, NC State University, Wildlife Conservation Society, Operation Splash, Gotham Whale, and The Nature Conservancy in New York.

We ask that the public please continue to be on the lookout, and please report sightings to sightings@amseas.org.

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Newsday: NOAA probes 13 North Atlantic right whale deaths

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries division and Canadian authorities are launching an investigation after a number of North Atlantic right whales have died this summer, stressing the already imperiled population.

Thirteen of the critically endangered mammals have died since April — 10 in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence and three at or near Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, said David Gouveia of NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region.

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Long Island Pulse Magazine: Will It Ever Be the Year of the Sea Turtle?

Long Islanders can hop on whale and seal watching cruises and go shark diving in an aluminum cage. Reports of whale, dolphin and shark sightings spark interest—or strike fear—in locals. But sea turtle spotting expeditions are nonexistent on the Island and the reptiles rarely make the news.

“Sea turtles are more difficult to spot,” said Robert A. DiGiovanni, founder and chief scientist of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society. “The occurrence and encounter rate is low, partly based on their behavior and partly because they may spend less time on the surface when near shore in the bays and estuaries.”

Read the full story online here.

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First Marine Mammal Survey of Summer 2017

On Sunday, July 16, 2017 we conducted our first marine mammal survey of the season! Our team observed and documented nine bottlenose dolphins feeding four miles offshore and 12 miles east of Shinnecock Inlet in Southampton. While on the water, we also collected floating marine debris. This included plastics and lots of mylar balloons. These light weight items totaled 6.92 pounds - that's a lot of potentially harmful items that could lead to marine animal injuries or deaths. The marine debris was collected in less than a half hour of effort.

Marine debris is an entirely preventable cause of marine mammal and sea turtle entanglements, injuries, and deaths. When these items enter the marine environment they have the potential to harm wildlife, such as the bottlenose dolphins observed during the survey. 

Research is essential to our work. These surveys allow us to better understand the location and movements of these animals, as well as understand the environment in which they are living. All of the photos below were taken with research permit #20294.

 

 

Long Island Pulse Magazine: A Whale Of An Island

Long Island’s history with whales likely dates back to the 1600s when, according to sparse artifacts such as engravings, Native Americans hunted whales that swam close to shore. Long Islanders went on to pioneer whaling in the Northeast, opening ports in Sag Harbor, Greenport and Cold Spring Harbor. The whale was like a buffalo. It had multiple purposes—food, oil, tool-making.

Though the International Whaling Commission banned almost all whaling in 1986, our shores had appeared void of the sea mammals for about half a century. But last July, two humpbacks were repeatedly spotted in the Long Island Sound, prompting media and beachgoers to wonder if whales were navigating local waters more often. Robert A. DiGiovanni, the founder and chief scientist of Atlantic Marine Conservation Society would get word of a few sightings per year. Since 2014, it has gotten a few per week, mostly in New York Harbor, the Long Island Sound and the South Shore of Long Island.

Read the full story online here.

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