Scientists Say Most Whale Strikes Go Undocumented

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.—Scientists, researchers and environmentalists have long grappled with how best to analyze the occurrence of vessel strikes that kill or injure endangered whales and other marine mammals along the feeding ground waterways of the California coast.

In Huntington Beach, a 63-foot fin whale washed onto California shores May 19, after it was struck by an Australian Navy ship on its way to San Diego. Such occurrences are the only way researchers know when an animal has died.

That vessel strike left two animals dead, including the one towed to sea in San Diego which later washed up on Bolsa Chica State Beach, and a calf which was buried on land.

Kevin Pearsall of the California State Parks and Recreation confirmed with the Epoch Times that the whale carcass was removed May 22 and hauled to Miramar Landfill in San Diego by a private contractor hired by state parks.

Pearsall said that the $10,000 disposal fee normally charged by the landfill was waived, likely due to the fact that it is on leased land owned by the U.S. Navy.  The Australian Navy vessel that struck the two whales was conducting training maneuvers with the U.S. Navy, and the deceased whales were only detected when the ships arrived in the Port of San Diego.

It is not clear yet who will be responsible for the remaining costs associated with the incident, which Pearsall said would be up to an additional $15,000.

Bolsa Chica State Beach is one of the most visited beaches in the state, Pearsall said, and there had been at least 40 to 50 people per day coming to the beach to view the animal. However on May 22, crowds mysteriously dissipated for the entire four hours it took crews to complete the unpleasant task of dismantling and removing the whale.

“There’s just no ‘right’ or easy way to deal with the death of a mammal that size. Everyone did the best job under the circumstances,” Pearsall said. “I really appreciate that people stayed away, it almost seemed out of respect, while the team worked to dispose of what was left of her.”

The OC Health Care Agency’s Environmental Health Division closed parts Bolsa Chica State Beach due to potential contamination of the beach and water adjacent to the decomposing carcass late last week.

Navigating Crowded Shipping Lanes

Fin, humpback and gray whales are the most vulnerable to vessel strikes due to their migration and feeding patterns along the Santa Barbara Channel near the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

However, those offshore feeding areas also overlap with heavy shipping lane traffic where thousands of vessels traverse each year as global maritime traffic increases.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), commercial whalers once aggressively hunted whales for decades, severely lowering their populations to the point of being endangered. While whaling is no longer a threat thanks to protective legislation, vessel strikes are now the biggest concern.

All whales, dolphins, and porpoises belong to a group of marine mammals called cetaceans. NOAA fisheries works to ensure the conservation of all cetaceans, which are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  The organization works under the Endangered Species Act to protect and recover species such as the fin whale population.

There’s good news, according to Michael Milstein of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast region.

Said Milstein: “I would note that several of the protected whale species on the West Coast have increased in number in the last few decades as they have continued rebounding from the depressed numbers from the whaling era.”

Tip of the Iceberg

Scientists at the Marine Science Institute, University of California–Santa Barbara estimate that more than 80 fin, blue and humpback whales on the West Coast succumb to vessel collisions annually.

But the true numbers aren’t really known since many times a vessel’s crew isn’t aware it hit an animal, or the incidents are not reported.

Milstein said NOAA Fisheries has worked extensively with John Calambokidis, a research biologist with Cascadia Research Collective in Washington State, who is known as one of the top experts on whales on the West Coast. He has studied ship strikes on whales and other species.

The Epoch Times made an inquiry to Calambokidis as to how broad the vessel strike issue is today.

“I would say it’s absolutely a global problem, and that in general, the U.S. has been leading some of the conservation efforts particularly in the Atlantic,” Calambokidis said.

“To Michael’s [Milstein] point, certainly within whale populations, we have seen major recoveries and increasing numbers of both fin and humpback species, but we’ve learned also there are more whales to be struck.  As their population number increases then, statistically, the number of accidents will increase, but is there a correlation.”

He continued: “One of the big challenges is that only a very small proportion of the ship strikes that we are fairly certain are occurring get documented.”

Calambokidis said the number of documented ship strikes is not the best way to analyze the situation. He estimated that as much as 90 percent of fin, blue and humpback whale mortality goes undocumented.

“You know I just try to remind people that we don’t really have accurate indicators,” Calambokidis said. “Analysis of those strikes that are documented may seem like it’s the tip of the iceberg but it’s not, it’s far worse than that.”

“When dead whales end up on our shores, it focuses our attention on the issue when it occurs and is seen, but the issue is present every year, even when it’s not necessarily getting documented.”

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Lynn Hackman
Author: Lynn Hackman

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