BAR HARBOR — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced elevated mortalities for three large whale populations, calling death rates “unusual mortality events,” or UMEs.
The governmental agency is investigating North Atlantic right, humpback and minke whale UMEs separately, and it relies on networks along the whales’ migration patterns to respond to animal strandings and collect data.
Allied Whale at College of the Atlantic is the stranding response partner for Mount Desert Island, and the only academic institution in the stranding network within the Greater Atlantic Region, from Maine to Virginia.
When a UME is announced, “all the stops come out,” said Rosemary Seton, the marine mammal stranding coordinator at Allied Whale. Director Sean Todd said the group is obligated to respond and investigate every whale stranding then.
The group is worried about its ability to continue that work, though, because the Trump administration’s recently proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 includes a 20 percent cut to NOAA. It would eliminate funding for the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grants, which are vital to stranding network partners like Allied Whale, said Todd.
Through this competitive grant process, organizations can receive up to $100,000 per year, which, according to Todd, is about 95 percent of Allied Whale’s funding.
Last summer, Seton and her team responded to a dead minke whale that was floating “belly up” in Blue Hill Bay. It had a 30-foot line through its mouth and showed impressions on its body that were indicative of entanglement with fishing gear.
About a dozen people were involved in responding to that case. First, they collected what whale experts call “Level A” data, which involves taking the whale’s measurements, as well as photographing and documenting the line impressions, wounds and scars. Once the external exam was conducted, the team performed a necropsy, gathering samples in Nalgene-sized jars and investigating its inside.
“Unfortunately, that animal was a little more cooked, as we say, so it was getting to the point where the organs were deteriorating,” said Seton.
A necropsy usually takes about three hours to complete, according to Todd. Under a UME, it could take as long as 12 hours, because the scope of the sampling is expanded and is a lot more rigorous.
A 50-foot whale necropsy costs about $5,000, according to Todd, but that doesn’t account for services that are donated and the hundreds of volunteers who are typically involved in stranding responses.
“The budgets that we managed to pull off under federal funding are such good bang for your buck,” Todd added.
Establishing the causes of a UME can take months, even years.
“One of the frustrating things about UMEs is that, naturally, people want to see answers quicker, because the situation is typically more dire and we want to know what’s causing this,” said Todd.
Evidence of climate change, especially rising ocean temperatures, corresponds with downward inflections in the whale population, particularly North Atlantic right whales, but Todd was cautious about claiming causation.
“Are the two connected? We can’t say, because we can’t develop a cause and effect experiment,” said Todd.
“Within the U.S., any federal employee is probably reluctant to talk about [climate change], just because of the position of our current leaders. I think if you went to another country, the words ‘climate change’ are mentioned much more confidently because they have much stronger opinions about what’s going on,” he added.
The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming bodies of water, and “warming waters mean the ocean is less able to produce food,” said Todd, which steers whales away from their normal migration patterns.
“It’s a really bizarre kink in the legislative process whereby we the people have agreed that we value marine mammals to the point where they should be protected and we the people, as of the reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, decided that we should set up a stranding network and we should respond to strandings, but we did not create any funding to support that.”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration referred requests for comment to the United States Department of Commerce, which did not respond by press time.