marine environment

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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