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East Coast Large Whale Strandings, 1992-2016

Large whales include all of the baleen whale species (such as blue, Bryde’s, fin, sei, right, humpback, and minke whales), and the largest toothed whale species, the sperm whale. All large whales are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and all that occur along the US East Coast are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act except  Bryde’s, humpback, and minke whales.

Between 1992 and 2016, 1,081 large whales were reported stranded on or floating offshore of the US East Coast. The annual numbers show a slightly increasing trend over these 25 years, with high years in 2003, when 86 large whale strandings and floaters were documented, in 2011, with 55 reports received, and in 2016 (52 reports). Unusual mortality events for large whales were declared in 2003 and 2016.

Massachusetts saw the most strandings (202), followed by Maine (130) and North Carolina (117).  During this period, only two large whale strandings were documented in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and only six in New Hampshire.  

Humpback whales (371) are the most common large whale reported, followed by minke whales (276). These numbers may reflect both the relatively large population sizes of these species, and their nearshore distribution. Once large whale stranding numbers are updated to include 2017 strandings, an ongoing humpback whale unusual mortality event will be reflected in elevated coastwide humpback mortalities seen here in 2016,  and continuing during 2017.

Once large whale stranding numbers are updated to include 2017 strandings, an ongoing humpback whale unusual mortality event will be reflected in elevated coastwide humpback mortalities seen here in 2016, and continuing during 2017. An Unusual Mortality Event has been declared for humpbacks along the Atlantic coast.

With fewer than 460 North Atlantic right whales remaining in this highly endangered population, NOAA Fisheries has always prioritized investigation of right whale strandings along the East Coast. Documented strandings and reports of floaters show a slightly increasing trend over this 25 year period. However these numbers do not reflect the unprecedented number of right whale strandings in 2017, primarily in Canadian waters, which have caused NOAA Fisheries to declare an Unusual Mortality Event for right whales as well.