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Dead rare whale on NC coast spurs conversation about whale mortality

Scientists from UNC-Wilmington, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center rushed to the coast to perform a necropsy to determine the cause of death.

William McLellan, North Carolina State Stranding Coordinator at UNC-W, said so far the organizations believe internal parasite damage caused the whale to stop functioning normally and they are conducting further research to confirm this.

“Many researchers from across the country and Canada will receive these samples to better understand how this species makes its living, and what may have contributed to its death,” Ann Pabst, a professor at the UNC-W Department of Biology and Marine Biology, said in an email.

The Cuvier’s beaked whale is a species scientists do not know much about because these whales spend most of their time diving in waters 1,000 feet deep or more, she said.

Karen Clark, program coordinator for the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education, said in an email this whale was the first of its kind beached in the Outer Banks.

She said the entire skeleton was collected for the N.C. Maritime Museums because the species is so rare.

“(Curvier’s) beaked whales are still considered a mysterious species that can be difficult to observe,” Clark said.

McLellan said scientists are more familiar with the Right whale — the most endangered whale species in the Atlantic — which has seen a significant decline in its population since 2010.

He said many of these whale mortalities were due to fatal injuries from entanglement in fishing net. These mortalities have been increasing in the last few years.

McLellan said whale deaths are a reminder for humans to improve their relationship with the environment and for scientists to improve their understanding of the species.

He said a new plan, which forces boats to reduce speed when heading into shore, helps protect whales from being struck by boats — an event that happened to Stumpy, a whale struck by a boat in the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay whose skeleton can be found at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

The policy has reduced the number of boat related deaths, but entanglement remains an issue, McLellan said.

“The mortality from entanglement still continues and that’s what we’re addressing, that’s the big problem for Right whales right now,” he said.


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