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Source: Westhampton Patch

Vigil Planned for Humpback Whale Euthanized in Moriches Bay; Petition Created Demanding Change

Scores of community members are mourning the whale, who was euthanized after becoming stranded on a sandbar.


Posted: November 28, 2016
Originally Published: November 25, 2016

WESTHAMPTON, NY — Mourners will gather Sunday at a vigil for a humpback whale euthanized Wednesday after becoming stranded Sunday on a sandbar in Moriches Bay.

The vigil will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. on the beach by the Coast Guard Station Moriches, located at 100 Moriches Island Road in East Moriches.

Plans are in place to set up a cross "in memory of this beautiful creature," wrote organizers on the Locals Only Facebook page.

A petition has also been created to send to elected officials, demanding change and a "Local Marine Mammal Contingency Plan." To sign the petition, click here.

The petition said the plan would give "local authorities or properly trained citizens to the right supersede the federal government and gain the legal right to provide needed rescue efforts when these federally protected mammals become stranded or beached within locally regulated waters."

Rescuers said they were on hand with the equipment, funding, manpower, boats, a helicopter, divers, a barge, and commitment to help the whale, but have alleged they were blocked. "These dedicated citizens were in place to begin a rescue attempt when the federal government told them to stand down and threatened fines and arrests," the petition states.

Volunteers who tried valiantly to save the whale were devastated this week after the decision was made to euthanize the whale, who had been stranded since Sunday.

NOAA Fisheries representatives said the decision to euthanize was made in the whale's best interests, "to end its suffering."

Craig Harms, professor of aquatic animal medicine, North Carolina State College of Aquatic Veterinary Medicine, Kim Durham, rescue program director, Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, Sarah Wilkin, national stranding and emergency response coordinator, NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, and Deborah Fauquier, veterinary medical officer, NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, discussed the decision Wednesday.

The juvenile whale, Kate Brogan of NOAA fisheries public affairs said, elicited a very emotional response from the public who had "deep concern for this whale."

Harms said the situation was "incredibly difficult to deal with, logistically and emotionally."

The whale, he said, had endured "at least six low tide cycles prior" to being euthanized. Being subjected to those events caused the eventual gravitational collapse of its cardiovascular system, he said.

Also over that time, the whale was scavenged by gulls, causing skin damage and third degree burns on the greater part of its torso. The whale's eyes were moving "back and forth randomly," he said, a sign of neurological deterioration.

The whale, he said, had been through both low and high tide cycles; high tide was the best chance the whale would have had to get free and self rescue, and it "was not able to take advantage of that. It was not going to survive, it was just a matter of how long." Whales, he said, can "hang on in a situation like that for at least a few days or more. We made the decision in the best interest of the whale, to end its suffering."

Scientists used heavy sedation and pain reliever followed by potassium chloride to euthanize the humpback whale in Moriches Bay, the experts said; the potassium chloride was used instead of any drugs that might have been hazardous to scavengers and was the best alternative for the environment.

"This event was very challenging. There was a high level of emotion," Durham said.

Why the delay?

When asked by reporters why nothing was done sooner to help the whale, Wilkin said there had been "quite a bit of activity" since Sunday, with monitoring and assessment done through photos and videos. It's typical protocol to wait through a few high tide cycles, as it's in the best interest of the animal to free itself, she said.

"If it's healthy it will typically be able to get itself" free, she said. "The fact that it did not free itself starts to leave us to think there were underlying health compromises." Even if it had been able to free swim again, it would likely have gotten re-stranded, she said.

NOAA also discussed intervention options used in other areas of the United States and abroad but "ultimately ruled them out," she said.

Durham said the Riverhead Foundation "actively monitored this animal" from the time it first appeared in the bay a week ago.

Also, the experts said, the whale was 33-feet, not 25, as initially believed, weighing 28,000 to 30,000 kilos, much larger than first thought.

While dredging was considered, an alternative that has worked successfully in some instances worldwide, NOAA experts said it could also "end up badly," with the whale falling sideways and suffocating. "The logistics were incredibly daunting," Harms said.

NOAA officials said they would like to debrief internally and externally, learn from the episode, and access resources on a state level, formalizing a plan for future strandings, something New York State Senator Ken LaValle has called out to see happen.

Durham said the Riverhead Foundation is currently working with the New York State Department of Conservation on a plan.

Next, a full necropsy of the whale will be performed to determine if there were underlying health issues; all agreed the necropsy is critical.

One eyewitness asked why the whale was still splashing as the vets euthanized it; the vet said often there are involuntary movements, such as urination or a "last swim", but the whales do not feel anything as "their brain is not sensing that," Harms said.
The whale's body will likely be towed to shore in the next 48 hours, Durham said; as of Friday, the whale had not yet been moved.

Harms said when large whales get stranded, all that he's seen have had physical issues that make them unable to swim free.

Residents livid

But it's too little, too late for the sea of residents who tried to help the whale.

"The lies and deception are so disturbing to me. I'm so angry," said Alex Lampasona, who helped organize rescue efforts; he said valiant attempts by the community were blocked by officials despite volunteers' best attempts at securing a helicopter, crane, tugboat and even a barge to free the whale.

NOAA has said residents should not attempt to rescue the whale themselves because one "flip of the tail" could be deadly and hurt volunteers.

Lampasona, however, said he and others are outraged. "We are thinking this whale was destined to die. The whale was 20 to 30 feet from freedom," he said.

Chuck Bowman, president of the board of directors of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, confirmed earlier on Wednesday that vets sent by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries team made the decision and euthanized the whale at around 1:30 p.m.

"It's just very sad, that's all I can say," Bowman said. "The Riverhead Foundation usually has good outcomes. But this wasn't one of them."

Community calls for action

The outcome outraged the large group of residents who have united to try and save the whale, bringing boats to the bay and even setting up a GoFundMe page and a live feed cam on the Locals Only Facebook page.

"Only a matter of a few feet separated this whale from life," a post on the page said shortly after the whale was euthanized. "Tragic mishandling of a situation by our government. They should have been there on Sunday afternoon when it was first breached. Not four days later. Pathetic."

Derek Wells, who runs the page along with his partner, was deeply troubled by the end result. "I am extremely disappointed in the efforts made by NOAA. They were too little too late, and I do not believe that there was ever a rescue planned at all. Like most of their whales' breaches, it was an access and euthanize."

Wells said he plans to fight back.

"I am working with a lawyer who works with the Stranded No More Group to get a formal letter drafted to our local representatives. With the increase of bunker in the area, this is bound to happen again. We should act to get things changed while everyone is still passionate about this," he said.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, was livid Wednesday. "I'm not only sad, I'm angry. We had absolutely no plan and no response for this situation. Congressman Zeldin and Senator Ken LaValle need to form a whale response task force so we prevent this from happening in the future. Doing nothing is not an option; we are better than that."

Elected officials also expressed unhappiness at how the situation was handled. New York State Senator Ken LaValle called for a Senate hearing to address issues that arose during whale rescue efforts. Bowman said now that the whale is euthanized, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Riverhead Foundation will decide together how to dispose of the whale's 20-ton remains.

On Tuesday, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo had issued a statement saying he would do everything possible to save the humpback whale.