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This page provides an overview of cetacean strandings and information from January 2002 through present. This page is updated as new information becomes available, so please make note of the date on each graph. We thank you for your patience.
The Marine Mammal Stranding Center continues to be on the front line as the first responders during the recent increase in whale strandings that began in December 2022. As a member of the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Network, we are the boots on the ground working together with our fellow network members to help find the answers. The work that we perform is the first step in many that will bring us closer to understanding why we are seeing so many whale strandings along the East Coast.
Stranding organizations such as ourselves perform the necropsies and collect any tissue samples that are viable based on the condition of the carcass. Once we have collected the samples, they are sent to the laboratory pathologists who are responsible for processing and analyzing. When the pathologists have completed their work, the scientists who are tasked with researching the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event (UME) interpret the findings.
This is not the first UME investigation that the Marine Mammal Stranding Center has been involved with. In the summer of 1987, hundreds of bottlenose dolphins washed ashore in New Jersey, as well as along the rest of the East Coast. After several months of necropsies and sample collection, the cause was found to be a virus that had spread through the population. A similar event occurred in the summer of 2013, which was again found to be a virus.
This section includes the most up to date information MMSC has received on necropsy findings. Biological samples have various destination points to laboratories across the country. Labs have various response times, sometimes up to a year. Any results received by MMSC are immediately posted below.
Humpback whale necropsy on December 23, 2022 in Atlantic City, NJ (photo-John Munroe)
The MMSC is a member of the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Network, so we are on the front lines working together with our fellow network members to help find the answers to marine mammal deaths. We are tasked with being the first responders to facilitate a necropsy to collect any samples that are viable based on the condition of the carcass. Large whale necropsies can take a day or more to complete. The work is grueling and dangerous, requiring a large team of people, each with a specific task, working together as safely and efficiently as possible to complete the examination. When a large whale washes ashore in the Northeast region, oftentimes staff from other stranding organizations will travel in from out of state to assist with the efforts.
Once stranding organizations such as ourselves have collected the samples, they are then sent to the laboratory pathologists who are responsible for processing and analyzing. When the pathologists have completed their work, the scientists who are tasked with researching the ongoing Unusual Mortality Event (UME) interpret the findings.
It is never recommended for the public to push a stranded animal back into the water. Human risk is high, as thrashing dolphins can cause serious injuries, and potentially carry zoonotic diseases that can be transferred to humans. Not only is it dangerous for untrained individuals to attempt this, but these animals strand for a reason, and only pushing them back out into the ocean will prolong their suffering and any medical attention they might need. These animals are likely to re-strand in a different location and in a worsened condition.
The impact of stranding is life-threatening to cetaceans, as they are not anatomically designed to survive on land. Being evolved to live life in the ocean, their body weight and organs are supported by the water around them. When a cetacean is stranded for any length of time, their weight causes damage to their internal organs. Additionally, their skin becomes easily dried out and the animals begin to overheat. They are unlikely to survive even if they are refloated. Euthanasia is often deemed the most humane way to end suffering when the animals are found in poor body conditions due to being stranded.
If an animal is deemed by our veterinarian to be physically well enough and a good candidate for recovery, we have the capacity to stabilize the animal short-term until it is able to be transferred to a long-term cetacean rehabilitation facility. There are very few long-term cetacean rehabilitation facilities due to the size and scope of the facilities required to rehabilitate these delicate animals. Unfortunately, even with long-term rehabilitation, the survival rate for stranded cetaceans is very low.
The impact of stranding often causes major internal damage and is life-threatening to cetaceans, as they are not anatomically designed to survive on land. Being evolved to live life in the ocean, their body weight and organs are supported by the water around them. When a cetacean is stranded for any length of time, their weight causes damage to their internal organs, which impacts their survival.
Method of disposal is the decision of the landowner, not MMSC. There is no whale carcass disposal service, so after the necropsy is complete, logistics must be coordinated for disposal of the carcass.
Beach burial is typically the preferred method chosen for a variety of factors including resources available. The body decomposes naturally in the sand, returning nutrients to the ecosystem.
Disposal in a landfill is another method that may be chosen; however, the landfill must agree to accept the carcass, and many resources are required to transport the carcass (refer to the image gallery above to observe the heavy machinery necessary for carcass transport).
Towing the carcass out to sea requires a lot of financial and logistical resources, including permits. Weighing the carcass down adds more marine debris to the ocean (such as chain/blocks) which will remain in the marine ecosystem forever, long after the carcass is gone. Even after being sunk, the carcass can still break away and refloat. This can cause a navigational hazard for boats, and the carcass is likely to wash back on shore, either as a whole or in pieces, spread over a larger area of coastline.
Please reference "NOAA Marine Mammal Carcass Disposal Best Practices" for more information.