Marine biologists and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials are defending their decision to euthanize a juvenile 15-ton humpback whale after it spent nearly three days trapped on a sandbar after chasing bait fish in Moriches Bay last week—though they continue to be scrutinized and criticized by local residents, whale enthusiasts and those who tried offering their assistance.
Craig Harms, a veterinarian with the North Carolina State Veterinary Medicine who specializes in the health of aquatic animals, was called in by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, to euthanize the female humpback the day before Thanksgiving, after it repeatedly failed to free itself from a sandbar in Harts Cove in East Moriches over three days and several high tides.
Marine biologists explained that the school of thought with stranded or beached whales is to give them ample opportunity to free themselves; they prefer not to directly interfere with the process because healthy leviathans should not require such assistance. The process is called “self rescue,” officials said, and it is typically followed when whales beach themselves.
Additionally, attempts to lift, drag or otherwise move marine mammals that weigh thousands of pounds could end up damaging their internal organs, explained Colleen Coogan, a fishery biologist who serves on the NOAA communications teams. She also noted that the weight of the female whale was most likely crushing its internal organs, slowly taking its toll on the massive mammal.
Ms. Coogan said that euthanizing the whale, which was first spotted in Moriches Bay on November 13, most likely while it was chasing bait fish in the area during an extreme high tide, was the “most humane way” to address the situation.
“The best thing for the animal is to free itself,” explained Sarah Wilkin, the national stranding and emergency response coordinator for NOAA’s Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, at a press conference held last Wednesday, November 23—shortly after the humpback whale was euthanized—at the Coast Guard station in East Moriches. “If it is healthy, it should be able to get itself off,” she continued. “If it can’t, it’s probably an indication of an underlying health issue and … it will re-strand.”
At the same conference, Deborah Fauquier, a veterinary medical officer with NOAA, said her office followed all protocols, explaining that other suggestions—such as dragging the animal back into the water by its tail, or dredging a channel to provide a possible escape route to deeper water—could have dislocated the whale’s tail or damaged its pectoral flippers.
On November 23, the day the whale died, NOAA released a statement outlining the efforts that it and the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation in Riverhead had taken to free the whale and emphasizing that more aggressive efforts, however well-intended, would likely have been unsuccessful, could have injured the whale and would have put people in harm’s way.
“Marine mammal biologists warn that efforts to haul whales off beaches can cause more harm to the animal as strong pressure on the tail or flippers can result in internal injuries,” a statement released by NOAA said.
On Sunday, NOAA representatives tied a line to the whale’s carcass and towed it to nearby Cupsogue Beach, where officials representing six different organizations completed a necropsy the following afternoon. Scientists collected tissue samples while also recording observations in the hope of determining what prompted the whale to become stranded in the bay, explained David Morin, NOAA’s fisheries incident commander and large whale disentanglement specialist, who is leading the necropsy team.
The results of the necropsy, which was completed on Monday afternoon and followed by the whale’s burial, are not expected for several weeks. In response to the mounting wave of criticism based on the decision to euthanize the whale, NOAA has asked six groups to assist with the examination. They are: the Riverhead Foundation, the Specially Trained Animal Response Team on Long Island, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in New Jersey, the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Massachusetts, Marine Mammals of Maine and the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx.
But critics, including the several dozen people who held a vigil for the whale on Sunday near the water in East Moriches, are continuing to criticize how the stranding was handled. In addition to stating that they do not believe the whale was sick before it became stranded on the sandbar, locals questioned why none of the responding agencies, the first of which was the Riverhead Foundation, opted to clear a channel when several people from the community brought dredging equipment, and also repeatedly turned away those who wanted to offer their assistance.
Tim Dahlen of Westhampton Beach, who first spotted the whale when he was striped bass fishing near the Westhampton Yacht Squadron in Remsenburg on November 20, said he organized a meeting that attracted at least 50 concerned people outside the King Kullen in Eastport on November 22—the day before the whale was euthanized. He said those present discussed ways they could help the whale, with many offering to bring their boats and equipment to possibly move the whale.
Mr. Dahlen said their efforts were stalled when Coast Guard officials warned them that anyone who came within 200 feet of the beached whale would be arrested.
“You don’t have to be a vet to know that the whale could have been saved …” Mr. Dahlen said on Tuesday. “It was a sad end to the story. That whale could have made it.”
Greg Sikorski of Hampton Bays attended that meeting and said he and several others tried approaching the whale on a boat, hoping to use a barge to help free it—but the Coast Guard forced them to stop. “The Coast Guard was yelling at us on the loudspeakers that they would arrest us if we got any closer,” Mr. Sikorski recalled.
Others have been more fierce with their criticism, with one even suggesting that NOAA had put a bounty on the whale’s head so scientists could study the mammal. A newly formed Facebook group called “Rescue Group” provided a steady stream of increasingly angry and vindictive posts directed at the Riverhead Foundation and NOAA as the whale languished on the sandbar last week.
After learning about the whale’s presence in Moriches Bay, and before it became beached, Riverhead Foundation officials said they immediately contacted NOAA’s northeast regional office, which is based in Massachusetts. That is protocol, officials explained, whenever a protected species—and humpback whales qualify—are at risk.
According to Ms. Coogan, those in her office were in constant contact with Riverhead Foundation officials in the days after the whale’s initial spotting. She also noted that foundation officials tried to help the whale after it became stuck by directing the wakes of their boats toward the mammal as part of an effort to help it free itself.
Once the necropsy results are finalized, Mr. Morin said NOAA will review the chain of events and discuss ways to possibly improve their response in the future—a practice that the organization follows after every similar incident.
“We are always looking to improve our operations,” Mr. Morin said during Monday’s press conference at Cupsogue Beach. “We can always get better.”
Over the past few years humpback whale sightings have increased along the coasts of New York and New Jersey, and scientists are still trying to figure out why. Mr. Morin said one theory is that the whales are chasing bait fish toward the coast. When the female humpback entered Moriches Bay on November 20, Riverhead Foundation officials suggested that it was chasing bunker fish—a bait fish that they enjoy snacking on.
Those still reeling over the whale’s death have launched a pair of change.org petitions. The first petition, created by a group called “Locals Only,” is calling upon local politicians to write and adopt a “Local Marine Mammal Contingency Plan.” The law, according to the change.org page, would give local authorities, or properly trained citizens, to the right supersede the federal government when federally protected animals wash ashore or are beached in local waters. The petition, which can be found at www.change.org/p/charles-schumer-local-marine-mammal-contingency-plan, was sent to U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, U.S. Representative Kathleen Rice and State Senator Kenneth LaValle. The petition received 2,469 signatures as of earlier this week.
The second change.org petition making the rounds was started by Mark Hoag of West Des Moines, Iowa, and was also prompted by the whale euthanized in Moriches Bay. Mr. Hoag’s petition seeks the creation of a “Marine Mammal Good Samaritan Act,” a measure that would allow private citizens to assist animals in distress, and was sent to several congressman, including U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin.
Local politicians have been vocal about the federal response. On November 23, State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle said he would call for a State Senate hearing to review policies regarding rescuing stranded animals. He also questioned the lack of action by federal officials. Meanwhile, Governor Andrew Cuomo has directed state conservation officials to work more closely with NOAA representatives when a similar situation arises, with the goal of avoiding another euthanization.
Executive Editor Joseph Shaw and staff writer Michael Wright contributed to this story.