Just before Christmas, a deceased dolphin was found by a member of the public near Montauk Lighthouse and a second deceased marine mammal was discovered just days later.
“Studying what causes these animals’ mortality is critical in understanding the threats these animals face in their environment,” explained Atlantic Marine Conservation Society chief scientist Rob DiGiovanni. “It is through understanding these interactions that we can work with scientists and the community, and educate them on ways where these negative impacts can be mitigated.”
Due to the location of the dolphin, which was reported on Friday, December 22, and inclement weather, Atlantic Marine Conservation Society – who coordinated with NYS Park Services – decided to delay the necropsy and removal of the dolphin until Tuesday, December 26. Led by AMCS necropsy program director Kimberly Durham and AMCS field biologist and education coordinator Hannah Winslow, the necropsy was unable to determine the cause of death because of the dolphin’s degree of decomposition, and lack of apparent signs of mortality or significant findings. The dolphin was a mature male, nearly 6 feet in length and may have weighed between 200 – 225 pounds. There was proof of scavenger activity post-mortem and the dolphin was buried on the beach.
“The information we gather is essential in helping the populations we see free swimming offshore or in our bays,” noted DiGiovanni. “Without this, we would be ill-equipped to help them.”
On Tuesday, December 26, a deceased humpback whale at Atlantic Beach was reported to AMCS by the Nassau Police. The high tide limited accessibility to the whale, so AMCS, who was joined by Town of Hempstead, Bay Constables, Mystic Aquarium, Marine Mammals of Maine, NYS DEC, and the Sanitation Department, waited until Wednesday, December 27 to secure the whale and conduct the necropsy. The female sub-adult was 33 feet in length, and weighed nearly 20 tons. It’s stomach did have food in it and a decent amount of blubber. It appears to be an acute mortality event, and samples, which were taken and will be sent to a pathologist, will be further investigated. However, the results could take a few months to come back.
The whale was buried on the beach. “Burial on the beach is the most natural way to dispose of deceased whales, and is the primary disposal option for large whale carcasses around the country. This has been an effective means of disposal for more than 40 years, and the whale stays contained on the beach. Animals are buried high on the beach near the base of dunes to mitigate concerns of erosion. There have been a number of studies that assess leachate from disposal sites, however the primary focus has been contaminates and other disease agents. Leachate from a burial site is extremely slow and likely flows down into bottom sediment. Burial, similar to composting, aids in breaking down biological material faster and therefore remains to be a viable option for large whale carcass disposal,” AMCS and NOAA said in a statement about the whale’s burial.
“There have never been any issues with oil/blood leaching from a burial site into the water that would attract sharks. In the event blood or oil is leached, it would be slow and the dilution factor would be so high it would be highly unlikely to be detectable by sharks. The concern with spreading disease comes from the public touching the animal. Once the animal is necropsied and the animal is buried, the risk of disease transmission is mitigated,” the statement continued. “Being made into smaller pieces after the necropsy also aids in its decomposition. It is illegal for people to dig up the whale, or keep any pieces including bone. Marine mammals are federally protected, and only authorized organizations may respond to these animals. NOAA fully supports the ongoing efforts by AMCS to respond to large whale stranding events and to use burial as a disposal option to maintain public health and safety.”
“We have seen an unprecedented number of deceased marine animal strandings this year, which now includes 14 large whales,” he reflected. “As New York’s lead large whale response organization, we work have to work with the community to be able to respond to these animals and educate the public that these animals are present in our waters.”
“We look to the community to conduct information outreach lectures and trainings on how we can work together in their backyard to promote conservation through action,” DiGiovanni concluded.