NOAA Fisheries has opened an investigation into the recent deaths of minke whales along the U.S. East Coast, the agency announced on Wednesday, 31 January.
Since January 2017, when a dead minke whale was found near New York’s LaGuardia Airport, the agency has documented a total of 29 stranded minke whales from the coasts of Maine to the Carolinas. Of those 29, 19 were dead. That has prompted NOAA Fisheries to initiate a so-called “Unusual Mortality Event” investigation into the strandings.
Opening a UME investigation will enable NOAA officials to allocate additional resources and respond more quickly to any new strandings that take place. Officials will create a team of scientists to develop a plan of action and collect data from documented and future strandings.
While the whales have only been found between Maine and South Carolina, officials are extending the investigation area to include as far south as Florida to take into consideration the whale’s migration patterns.
While not all the investigations into the deaths have been concluded, officials said preliminary information shows 11 of the dead whales had confirmed or suspected human or fishery interaction, such as blunt force trauma or a net entanglement. Investigators also believe eight of the whales carried an infectious disease.
Minke whales are not considered an endangered or a threatened species. Using recent surveys, NOAA officials believe the current minke population be to between about 1,400 to 2,600.
Since 1991, NOAA has made 65 formal UME declarations. This marks the first time, however, that there are three active UME investigations along the Atlantic coast. NOAA officials are still investigating recent strandings of North Atlantic right and humpback whales in the region.
Teri Rowles, a marine mammal health and strandings program coordinator with NOAA Fisheries, said the three investigations are currently separate. However, they could be combined if findings show any connections between the incidents.
Also on Wednesday, NOAA Fisheries announced a voluntary speed reduction zone in waters off Virginia Beach, Virginia, after three right whales were sighted about 54 miles southeast of the city. NOAA officials are asking mariners to travel at speeds no faster than 10 knots through 10 February.