Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say they will continue to rigorously and collaboratively investigate the deaths of 30 large whales in the western Gulf of Alaska.
The investigation will involve NOAA scientists and partner organizations, as well as members of the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
NOAA announced on August 20 that since May a total of 11 fin whales, 14 humpback whales, one gray whale and four unidentified cetaceans have stranded around the islands of the western Gulf and the southern shoreline of the Alaska Peninsula.
To date, this brings the large whale strandings for this region to almost three times the historical average.
Teri Rowles, the marine mammal health and stranding response coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, said the agency is very concerned about the large number of whales stranding in the western Gulf, and do not yet know the cause.
The deaths came at a time when ocean temperatures in that area are higher than normal and those warm conditions are expected to continue, with a developing El Nino weather system. Rowles said that scientists are also looking at the possibility that the deaths are related to some type of toxin produced by algal bloom.
“Biotoxins will be one of the top priorities, but not the only priority that we’ll be looking at to rule in or rule out whether it’s playing a role in this death investigation and these mortalities, both in Canada and the US, she said.
A big challenge is being able to get to deceased whales, whose bodies may be floating or stranded, to perform necropsies. The beached whales may also be eaten by bears before their carcasses can be recovered.
NOAA has asked the public to assist in the investigation by immediately reporting any sightings of dead whales or distressed live animals they discover. Reports should be placed to the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline at 877-925-7773.