The officials of the federal government announced on Thursday, Aug 20 that they have initiated a probe about the baffling deaths of whales in Alaska since May 2015. The carcasses have been washed up along the Western Alaskan gulf shores including the Afognak Island, Kodiak Island, the Semidi Islands, the Chirikof Island, and the southern parts of the Peninsula. All in all, 14 humpback whales, 11 fin whales, four unidentified cetaceans and one gray whale have been discovered in the past four months.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared this alarming occurrence as an Unusual Mortality Event (UME), which according to the Marine Mammal Protection Act is defined as "a stranding that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population and demands immediate response."

Although the exact causes of the whale deaths have not been established yet, the investigations being conducted will provide essential data on the health of the whales and status of the ecosystems where they thrive, says Teri Rowles, a coordinator from the Fisheries's Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response program. So far, only one dead whale has been obtained a sample from. The findings of the testing revealed that the specimen was negative for domoic acid, which is a toxin generated by algae, Rowles adds. However, the samples were so decayed that it may not be fully reliable.

According to reports, majority of the carcasses have been left afloat and have remained unretrievable. Most of the dead whales were also found to be in a state of moderate to severe decomposition. Getting samples of the dead whales has been a very challenging task, says Bree Witteveen, a marine mammal specialist from the Alaska Sea Grant program and an on-site coordinator of the investigations. As Alaska has a massive coastline and a large portion of uninhabited and jagged areas, getting access is quite impossible. "It's unfortunate, but we just cannot get to those carcasses more often than not," she said.

The researchers are now urging the public to help in the endeavor by reporting dead whale sightings. It is crucial for this type UME to have access to the animals' locations, record them, and obtain samples from where they are found. Hence, the members of the public can be of great contribution just by letting officials know should they find carcasses, Rowles closed.

Photo: Joyce cory | Flickr

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