The Marine Mammal Protection Act defines an UME as “a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response” (3).
NOAA reported the death toll since May 2015 as:
–> 11 fin whales
–> 14 humpback whales
–> 1 gray whale
–> 4 unidentified cetaceans (whales and dolphins)
The bodies were discovered “around the islands of the western Gulf of Alaska and the southern shoreline of the Alaska Peninsula”. NOAA reported that these recent “large whale strandings” are historical since they are nearly three times the average number for such strandings. For better understanding, the statistics for strandings during 2010-2014 had an “Avg± 2StDev =8.4 ± 8.2 large whales (range 5-15 whales/year)” (4). However, according to an August 19, 2015 United States Department of Commerce NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service memo, the death toll was:
–> 23 large whales
–> 11 fin (Balaenoptera physalus)
–> 9 humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae)
–> 1 gray (Eschrichtius robustus)
–> 2 unidentified cetaceans (as of July 13, 2015)
The region of the event includes “Kodiak Island, Afognak Island, Chirikof Island, the Semidi Islands and the southern shoreline of the Alaska Peninsula.” So far, most of the whale carcasses weren’t retrievable, having decomposed, but one whale sample was retrieved.
The Investigation Process
With the NOAA’s declaration that the number of whale deaths are an “unusual mortality event” comes a follow-up investigation. This will be undertaken not just by the NOAA, but also state, federal and even tribal partners. The groups have come together to “develop a response plan and conduct a rigorous scientific investigation into the cause of death for the stranded whales.”
NOAA Fisheries’ marine mammal health and stranding response coordinator Dr. Teri Rowles stated, “NOAA Fisheries scientists and partners are very concerned about the large number of whales stranding in the western Gulf of Alaska in recent months.”
Dr. Rowles specified that so far scientists don’t know the reason why the whales are dying. “Our investigations will give us important information on the health of whales and the ecosystems where they live.” The general public is encouraged to assist with the investigation by quickly reporting any dead whales or whales in distress as well as other marine animals.
The “Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events” was formed in 1991 as part of the “Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.” The high number of strandings met the group’s criteria for designating resources to help fund the research.
Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network members are also assisting NOAA scientists as well as other “partner organizations” in trying to find causation. The scientists don’t expect to have a quick answer. In fact, the NOAA warns that the investigation could take several months, even years, to pinpoint the reason for the deaths.
How to Report Stranded or Dead Marine Mammals
The investigation process includes collecting data and then the complex task of analysis. This is all very time-consuming.
For example, if the event lasts a long time, then it stands to reason that the length of time needed for the compilation of data and the time required to analyze and complete the investigation will also take longer.
The NOAA advises the public to report any stranded or dead marine mammals to the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline at 877-9-AKR-PRD (877-925-7773).
Trained marine mammal experts are the only ones authorized to respond to distressed marine mammals (5).
Updates on the investigation will be published on the NOAA website as more information becomes available.