Five Whales Die Along North Carolina Coast in 2023: Investigating the Causes of Strandings đŸ‹đŸ–ïž

Five Whales Die Along North Carolina Coast in 2023: Investigating the Causes of Strandings
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In the first months of 2023, five whales have died on or near North Car­oli­na’s coast­line, rais­ing con­cerns about their safe­ty and health in this region. 

The deceased whales include a hump­back whale, minke whale, and three dwarf sperm whales, with strand­ings occur­ring more fre­quent­ly dur­ing the winter.

Experts from the N.C. State University’s Cen­ter for Marine Sci­ences and Tech­nol­o­gy in More­head City sug­gest that human inter­ac­tion – such as entan­gle­ment with fish­ing gear and ves­sel strikes – may be the pri­ma­ry cause of these deaths. 

The degrad­ed con­di­tion of whale car­cass­es often makes it chal­leng­ing to deter­mine the exact cause of death; how­ev­er, when researchers can iden­ti­fy it, human fac­tors are usu­al­ly involved.

Dr. Craig Harms, direc­tor of the marine health pro­gram, is part of a work­ing group advis­ing NOAA and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ser­vice on “unusu­al mor­tal­i­ty events,” which could sig­ni­fy envi­ron­men­tal changes need­ing imme­di­ate action.

Cur­rent­ly, the group is mon­i­tor­ing ongo­ing mor­tal­i­ty events for four species, includ­ing Flori­da man­a­tees, minke whales, right whales, and hump­back whales, all found in North Car­oli­na coastal waters.

Although this year has seen few­er whale deaths than in 2023, minke and hump­back whales have expe­ri­enced large num­bers of deaths for years. NOAA and U.S. Fish & Wildlife declared unusu­al mor­tal­i­ty events for hump­back whales in 2016 and minke whales in 2017. Since then, at least 220 hump­back whales and 166 minke whales have died along the Atlantic coast.

Mari­na Doshkov, marine mam­mal strand­ing coor­di­na­tor for the N.C. Aquar­i­ums, explains that whales can get sick just like humans do, from injuries and ill­ness­es caused by virus­es and bac­te­r­i­al infec­tions. How­ev­er, many whales are harmed by boat strikes, pro­pellers, or fish­ing gear entanglements.

To pro­tect whales, NOAA and U.S. Fish & Wildlife advise boaters to be vig­i­lant, reduce speed when marine mam­mals are near­by, main­tain a safe dis­tance, and stop imme­di­ate­ly upon spot­ting a whale. 

Dr. Harms sug­gests that flex­i­ble fed­er­al reg­u­la­tions – like tem­po­rary restric­tions on boat­ing or fish­ing when whales change migra­tion routes or move away from tra­di­tion­al feed­ing areas – could pro­vide addi­tion­al protection.

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