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Humans and Humpbacks of New York

A message from John Bullard, Regional Administrator of the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region

Very few animals can create a sudden interest in wildlife conservation and stewardship the way whales can. These marine mammal ambassadors to the ocean world amaze, awe, and inspire us. For me, as a descendant of Nantucket and New Bedford whaling captains, one of my proudest responsibilities as the Regional Administrator of the Greater Atlantic Region has been the recovery and conservation of large whale populations

In recent months, we have received reports of increasing numbers of large whales in nearshore waters off the coasts of New York and New Jersey. Large schools of menhaden (also known as “bunker”), are an important humpback whale food source, and have likely attracted these whales and kept them close to shore

The good news is that more sightings are likely also in part due to more whales. Over the past several decades, we have modified and reduced the number of entangling fishing lines in northeast U.S. waters, shifted shipping lanes, implemented vessels speed restrictions, and protected habitats for whales and the fish they eat. Thanks in part to these conservation efforts, the humpback whale population in Northeast U.S, waters has successfully rebounded, and we removed them from the list of endangered species in September 2016. 

Of course, more whales can lead to more management challenges. In nearshore waters, whales face additional threats--shallow waters, vessel strikes, marine debris, and pollution. 

Most recently, two “out of habitat” young humpback whales made headlines in New York and New Jersey. The first one captivated residents near the Statue of Liberty and George Washington Bridge, while the second one captivated residents of Long Island in Moriches Bay. The first whale is at risk of being struck by vessels in the Hudson River, but thankfully has so far avoided ship traffic. We nevertheless remain concerned about it, and welcome any reports (866-755-6622), including photos and video, of the animal so we can continue to assess its condition. Sadly, the second whale stranded on a sandbar in Moriches Bay and was humanely euthanized because of its poor prognosis.

NOAA Fisheries’ Greater Atlantic Region spans from the North Carolina/Virginia border to Canada. Because we do not have marine mammal stranding staff in every bay and waterway along 1,500+ miles of coastline, we oversee and support a professional network of highly trained and skilled local stranding responders. We provide authorization to these volunteer responders through stranding agreements, which lay out criteria, roles, and responsibilities. We also provide these responders with training, Best Practice protocols, and some limited funding.

  The humpback known as "Gotham" was sighted around New York City for several weeks in November and December 2016. Photo used with permission from Artie Raslich Photography.

Currently in New York, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation is the organization authorized by NOAA to respond to both marine mammal and sea turtle strandings. Under their stranding agreements, all Network members agree to manage any expenses incurred during stranding response.

NOAA is able to provide partial funding through the competitive John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program, and the Riverhead Foundation has successfully received funding in recent years to support their mission.

The Riverhead Foundation and all the other authorized volunteer stranding network organizations around the country are NOAA’s “boots on the ground” during marine mammal emergency events. They are typically the first responders on scene. Stranding network staff assess and respond to local stranding events, and then confer with NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program staff at both the regional and national level to determine the best and most humane course of action for animals in distress.

We have received a lot of criticism from members of the public about the response to the Moriches Bay humpback whale. After stranding alive and spending nearly three days on a sandbar, experts agreed that the whale needed to be humanely euthanized. Local residents watched from the shores, feeling frustrated and helpless by the perceived lack of active response by experts. However, contrary to public perception, there was constant monitoring of the whale and of local environmental conditions (weather, wind, and tides) by Riverhead Foundation staff and other local experts. Discussions were held early on about potential rescue options that were ultimately ruled out because stranding experts advised that they were not likely to work, but were likely to cause the animal more pain and distress. Although there were generous offers of help and equipment from the public, unfortunately we were not aware of these resources until after midday Tuesday, more than 48 hours after the whale beached itself and after local experts and residents reported a clear decline in the whale’s condition.

Some whale strandings are more difficult to respond to than others, and perhaps none are more difficult than live large whale strandings. These events are relatively rare. In recent years, an average of eight live large whales were reported stranded per year nationwide. Sadly, such events are nearly always fatal for the whale, with most dying shortly after stranding and a handful needing to be humanely euthanized. Worldwide, marine mammal rescue responders face similar challenges, and although some rescue attempts are portrayed as successful, it’s important to realize there is rarely actual scientific follow-up documenting survival.

I know how frustrating it is to watch a stranded whale struggle, and we heard lots of well-meaning ideas for how to get it off the beach. But, in our experience, virtually all large whales that strand do not survive, and trying to move them only prolongs and increases their suffering. In the past three years in the U.S., four large baleen whales that were stranded were able to free themselves, and an additional whale was pushed off by bystanders. However, in all five of these cases, the whales re-stranded and died within 24 hours of their initial beachings, indicating underlying health issues caused the stranding in the first place.

In the rare cases when animals are relatively healthy and might benefit from being moved off the beach, there are still many practical considerations that can’t be avoided, such as the size and weight of these incredibly large animals, as well as physical limitations at the stranding site. Time is of the essence for these responses; a team and appropriate vessels would have to be available within 24 to 36 hours of a whale stranding to have a chance of success.

In this recent case with the whale in Moriches Bay, the animal was 29.5 feet long and approximately 15 tons (30,000 pounds), which is the size and weight of a large school bus. To add to the challenge, the whale was stuck in the mud a fair distance from shore and from open deeper water. There are serious health and injury considerations that expert responders have to take into account when they consider moving a whale. Muscle, tendon, bone, or spinal cord damage would cause additional pain, suffering, or paralysis. If a whale is injured during a tow, it suffers an unnecessarily painful death.

We recognize all this context does not mend the heartache the Moriches community feels about the stranding and death of the young humpback whale.

We’re sorry there wasn’t more explanation and discussion with the community about the dialogue among experts and decisions being made.

Would outcomes have been different if local knowledge, equipment, and resources were known and in place on day one? Governor Cuomo called me personally on Tuesday to offer any equipment and personnel we needed to free the whale. We all regret that we did not have this conversation with the State on the first day that the whale stranded. We’ll never know for sure, but within the first 36 hours, an expert-directed response with the resources of the State and local community may have been worth a try.

With this and all other stranding events, we learn and improve future responses. Moving forward, we will do our best to work with stranding network members and local authorities to develop inventories of resources and contacts. I will ensure staff are available to help communicate with the local communities and to assure a clear incident command structure when needed. As a silver lining, I hope the Moriches whale stranding inspires community members to volunteer and to get the necessary training to have skills to respond and to perhaps help improve outcomes when another live whale strands.