An unlikely confluence of factors, including climate change and online shopping, appears to be at least partially to blame for the uptick.
First a North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species, washed ashore in Virginia. Then a humpback floated onto a beach in New Jersey. Not long afterward, a minke whale, swept in on the morning tide, landed on the Rockaway Peninsula in New York City.
And that was in just a single week this month.
In all, 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.
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.
Scientists believe the mortality rate may be tied to an unlikely confluence of factors.
The population of humpbacks, hunted legally until 1985, has rebounded, thanks in part to decades of efforts to clean the Atlantic Ocean and heavily polluted tributaries like the Hudson River. As the climate changes and oceans warm, whales and a favored prey, menhaden, are migrating and feeding in new locations, often closer to shore.
Online pandemic buying habits are also fueling a record-setting surge in cargo shipments that last year made ports in New York and New Jersey the nation’s busiest. Much of the merchandise is now toted on far bigger ships — some of which have altered their routes to help alleviate the supply-chain chaos that last year left some store shelves bare.
As a result, more whales appear to have found themselves in the direct path of more ships.
“When the whales are in these channels,” said Paul Sieswerda, executive director of Gotham Whale, a New York City-based whale research group, “you have to cross your fingers and hope there are no collisions.”
This winter’s quick succession of stranded whales also coincides with work being done in advance of the installation of roughly a dozen large offshore wind farms from Massachusetts to Virginia. Opponents of offshore wind have said that the sonar used by energy companies to map the ocean floor or the noise from seabed rock sampling might be contributing to the whale deaths, though NOAA and the Marine Mammal Commission say there is no evidence that this is true.
The humpback whale found on Feb. 13 in Manasquan, N.J., had been spotted about a month earlier feeding in the Raritan Bay, 30 miles from where it washed ashore.
Sheila Dean’s phone at the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, N.J., rang that day, as it often does when dead whales turn up. It had been an exceptionally busy few weeks for Ms. Dean, who joined the center in 1978 after years working as a sea lion and dolphin trainer on Atlantic City’s famed Steel Pier.
She and a team of 10 volunteers arrived on the beach the next morning and found a whale known by her markings as NYC0298.
There is no way to X-ray a creature as large as a school bus on a beach, so researchers check for injuries manually, pulling back thick layers of blubber and reaching up to a foot into the body cavity to look for parasites, scarring or bruises, a telltale sign of a vessel strike. The work is strenuous, and the smell is foul.
“Our job is to find out what is killing them,” Ms. Dean said.
On Feb. 17, another volunteer necropsy team was called to the Rockaways, in Queens, to investigate the death of the minke found with deep propeller gashes in its side.
Harry Wallace, chief of the Unkechaug Nation, a Native American tribe from Long Island, was there, too. He performed a burial service after the whale sleuths had finished their work.
After the prayer, a front-end loader pushed the minke into a deep hole in the beach and covered the carcass with sand — the method used to dispose of most beached whales. The animals are buried deep enough to avoid a stench; over time, extra sand is often needed to fill in the divot as the whale decomposes and the grave settles.
“It’s our responsibility to recognize and remind that all living things have a spirit,” Chief Wallace said after the ceremony.
For more than half of all whales found stranded, investigators are not able to determine a definitive cause of death. Most of the animals are too decomposed; others may have died of infections that are impossible to detect or differentiate from the bacteria that quickly begins to form on dead tissue.
Sixteen of the whales stranded in the last three months have been humpbacks, nearly half as many as washed ashore in all of 2017, a peak year for deaths of both humpbacks and right whales. That year, humpbacks, right whales and minkes were all found to be experiencing what NOAA calls an “unusual mortality event,” which has led to extra resources from the federal government for inquiry into the deaths.
Since then, at least 335 of these three species have washed ashore along the East Coast.
Still, this winter’s quick succession of deaths over a short period is unusual, NOAA officials say.
Investigators found evidence of vessel strikes in all three of the whales that washed ashore during the week of Valentine’s Day.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic fueled a surge in online shopping — and shipping — local cargo ports had undergone a significant change. Starting in 2017, ports near New York opened for the first time to the world’s biggest ships after the Bayonne Bridge was lifted, an engineering feat that raised the waterway clearance by 64 feet.
Last year, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey moved more cargo at its ports than ever before, representing a 27 percent increase in volume from 2019.
In the last six months, ships that typically traveled only south before returning to international ports have also begun making northbound return trips to retrieve empty cargo containers, said Amanda Kwan, a Port Authority spokeswoman. The round-trip routes reduce the number of empty shipping containers that accumulate in port — one of several factors that contributed to last year’s supply-chain havoc — but have also added to shipping traffic up and down the seaboard.
Last summer, NOAA proposed enforcing a 10-knot speed limit farther from port and applying it to boats as small as 35 feet, a rule thought to limit injuries if a collision occurs and to give whales time to get out of the way.
“We’re extremely careful,” said Capt. Timothy J. Ferrie, a president of the Sandy Hook Pilots Association who has steered ships in and out of New York Harbor for more than 43 years.
“If the bait is there,” he added, “the whales are there.”
Some of the loudest voices drawing attention to the uptick in whale deaths are longtime opponents of offshore wind energy, who have found in the gruesome images of rotting whale carcasses a new 40-ton mascot.
Several local groups have found common cause with national organizations that have accepted funding from the fossil fuel industry, including the Caesar Rodney Institute, a right-leaning nonprofit that David T. Stevenson helps to lead.
Mr. Stevenson, who opposes offshore wind farms, is not convinced that it is greenhouse gases that have caused Earth to heat up, contradicting settled science. He believes offshore wind energy will be too expensive, and he recently founded the American Coalition for Ocean Protection, which now has chapters in coastal communities in New Jersey and New York.
“If an emotional response is what it takes,” he said about concern for the whales, “I’m not going to turn them down.”
Over the last month, Republican congressmen, conservative talk-show hosts and dozens of Jersey Shore mayors have called for an immediate moratorium on wind-energy projects.
“It’s not reasonable that it’s not going to cause real ecological damage,” said Cindy Zipf, director of Clean Ocean Action in New Jersey, which is calling for additional study before offshore wind projects receive final authorization.
But environmental protection organizations have largely supported wind energy. Thirteen such groups in New Jersey have reiterated support for offshore wind, a pillar of President Biden’s ambitious goals for reducing carbon emissions and combating climate change.
“The organizations that are serious about protecting marine life recognize there are trade-offs,” said Matthew B. Eisenson, who runs a legal defense initiative at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “Climate change can impact marine life — and we need renewable energy to mitigate climate impacts.”
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