23 Whales in 2 months have washed up on our East Coast beaches. What’s going on?

Whales wash ashore every year. But a recent uptick in deaths, including a humpback found in late January on Lido Beach in New York, concerns scientists.Credit…Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

From the New York Times:

23 dead whales have washed ashore along the East Coast since early December, including 12 in New Jersey and New York, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The pace of the deaths is worrisome to federal scientists, even if the total numbers are below some prior years.

Late Monday, the Coast Guard spotted another whale floating south of the Ambrose shipping channel, between New York and New Jersey; two teams from New York located the animal and determined that it was a humpback, but it was not clear where it might wash ashore.

Most of the fatalities have been humpbacks, and post-mortem examinations have suggested that ship strikes are likely the cause of many of the deaths.

Members of the Unkechaug Nation tribe on Long Island performed a burial ceremony before a front-end loader pushed a minke whale into a deep sand grave.Credit…Andrew Seng for The New York Times

According to the NOAA, the large number of deaths of humpback whales in a relatively short period of time constitutes an Unusual Mortality Event (UME).

Since January 2016, elevated humpback whale mortalities have occurred along the Atlantic coast from Maine through Florida. A table of stranding numbers by state is below.

This event was declared an Unusual Mortality Event in April 2017, and includes stranded humpback whales from 2016.

Shipping surged during the pandemic as consumers shopped online more than ever before.
Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Per Business Insider, climate change is one of the reasons marine animals are moving closer to the shore and in the paths of the ships that kill them.

Lauren Gaches, the agency’s public affairs director, said . . . “We’re seeing populations of many marine species adapting by moving into new areas where conditions are more favorable, [for hunting]” Gaches said. “Changing distributions of prey impact larger marine species that depend on them. This can lead to increased interactions with humans as some whales move closer to near-shore habitats.”  Which means as some whales seek out prey, they’re moving into the path of cargo ships, which have gotten bigger and more plentiful over the past three years. 

The NYT adds that the increase in traffic in shipping lanes due to the massive amount of online shopping done resulting in added shiploads of cargo have made the Waters more dangerous to the whales hunting for food.

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