Dead whales in Alaska cause for concern

Marine mammals are sentinels of the health of our oceans, and die-offs such as these can be indicative of larger ocean health concerns.As national attention turns to Alaska with President Obama’s historic visit, we are monitoring another federal government action there.

More than 30 large whales, including gray, humpback and fin whales, have been found dead across Alaska this summer, triggering the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the regulatory agency responsible for marine mammal protection and stranding response, to recently declare an official Unusual Mortality Event (UME).

UMEs may be caused by several factors such as disease outbreaks, lack of available food, harmful algae blooms, etc.  Often it is very difficult to determine the exact cause, but we do our best to understand what we can.

The good news is that with a declaration of a UME researchers and stranding responders receive additional resources to help determine what is causing the deaths of these animals.

Along the US coast line authorized stranding agencies like IFAW—the authorized marine mammal stranding response agency on Cape Cod, Massachusetts—respond daily to these types of reports.  The work of these stranding organizations provides essential base-line data to help determine when something is out of the norm and when we should be concerned.

So events like these also reinforce the importance and necessity of long-term stranding work. 

Some marine mammal strandings and deaths, including larger die offs, may be human induced.  The cause may be direct and obvious, such as entanglements in fishing gear or marine debris, but also can be indirect or ambiguous, such as impacts from high levels of contaminants in the water.

Marine mammals are sentinels of the health of our oceans, and die-offs such as these can be indicative of larger ocean health concerns. In recent years, there have been several active UMEs throughout the US at any given time including events such as the sea lion mortalities in California earlier this year and the on-going bottlenose dolphin die off in the mid-Atlantic.

These events continue to occur and the number of events and individuals affected by them may even be increasing. These cases stress the urgency of this important work, to potentially determine the cause, prevent future die offs, and aid in the conservation and protection of marine mammal species. 

--MN

Read more about the stranding work of IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team

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Experts

Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation