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Source: Westhampton Patch

Public Meeting on Stranded Humpback Whale Planned for February

BREAKING: An outraged and heartbroken public demanded change after a whale stranded in Moriches was euthanized.

BY LISA FINN (PATCH STAFF)

Posted: January 19, 2017
Originally Published: January 18, 2017

WESTHAMPTON BEACH, NY — Although the haunting memory lingers of a humpback whale stranded in Moriches Bay and euthanized, despite a sea of offers to help, a community meeting will be held to present information to the public, officials said.

According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region division, a community meeting will take place on February 7 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at Brookhaven Town Hall, located at 1 Independence Hill in Farmingville to present information related to the November 2016 stranding of a humpback whale in Moriches Bay.

The meeting is free and open to the public.

At the meeting, NOAA Fisheries staff will "present an analysis of the large live whale stranding response, lessons learned by the agency and its partners, and plans for a new collaboration to respond to marine mammal strandings on Long Island. There will be time for questions and comments from community members following the presentations," a release said.

"This is victory for all those who cried out for greater whale rescue efforts," said Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

In December, as the Moriches community continued to mourn the stranded humpback whale that was euthanized despite pleas from the public to help, officials said they didn't know about those offers of assistance until it was too late.

John Bullard, regional administrator of the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region, posted a message on the NOAA website. The message made no mention of necropsy results.

After stating that the "good news" is that increased sightings likely means more whales in local waters, Bullard addressed the stranded whale that caught the attention of the world when it became stranded on a sandbar and brought together a group of rescuers desperate to help.

"Sadly, the second whale stranded on a sandbar in Moriches Bay . . . was humanely euthanized because of its poor prognosis," he said.

"We have received a lot of criticism from members of the public about the response to the Moriches Bay humpback whale," Bullard said.

"After stranding alive and spending nearly three days on a sandbar, experts agreed that the whale needed to be humanely euthanized. Local residents watched from the shores, feeling frustrated and helpless by the perceived lack of active response by experts. However, contrary to public perception, there was constant monitoring of the whale and of local environmental conditions — weather, wind, and tides— by Riverhead Foundation staff and other local experts. Discussions were held early on about potential rescue options that were ultimately ruled out because stranding experts advised that they were not likely to work, but were likely to cause the animal more pain and distress."

NOAA says they were 'not aware' of offers to help

"Although there were generous offers of help and equipment from the public, unfortunately we were not aware of these resources until after midday Tuesday, more than 48 hours after the whale beached itself and after local experts and residents reported a clear decline in the whale’s condition," Bullard said.

"I know how frustrating it is to watch a stranded whale struggle, and we heard lots of well-meaning ideas for how to get it off the beach. But, in our experience, virtually all large whales that strand do not survive, and trying to move them only prolongs and increases their suffering. In the past three years in the U.S., four large baleen whales that were stranded were able to free themselves, and an additional whale was pushed off by bystanders. However, in all five of these cases, the whales re-stranded and died within 24 hours of their initial beachings, indicating underlying health issues caused the stranding in the first place.

"In the rare cases when animals are relatively healthy and might benefit from being moved off the beach, there are still many practical considerations that can’t be avoided, such as the size and weight of these incredibly large animals, as well as physical limitations at the stranding site. Time is of the essence for these responses; a team and appropriate vessels would have to be available within 24 to 36 hours of a whale stranding to have a chance of success.

"In this recent case with the whale in Moriches Bay, the animal was 29.5 feet long and approximately 15 tons, 30,000 pounds, which is the size and weight of a large school bus. To add to the challenge, the whale was stuck in the mud a fair distance from shore and from open deeper water. There are serious health and injury considerations that expert responders have to take into account when they consider moving a whale. Muscle, tendon, bone, or spinal cord damage would cause additional pain, suffering, or paralysis. If a whale is injured during a tow, it suffers an unnecessarily painful death.

"We recognize all this context does not mend the heartache the Moriches community feels about the stranding and death of the young humpback whale.

"We’re sorry there wasn’t more explanation and discussion with the community about the dialogue among experts and decisions being made," Bullard said.

Could outcomes have been different?

"Would outcomes have been different if local knowledge, equipment, and resources were known and in place on day one? Governor Cuomo called me personally on Tuesday to offer any equipment and personnel we needed to free the whale. We all regret that we did not have this conversation with the state on the first day that the whale stranded. We’ll never know for sure, but within the first 36 hours, an expert-directed response with the resources of the state and local community may have been worth a try.

"With this and all other stranding events, we learn and improve future responses. Moving forward, we will do our best to work with stranding network members and local authorities to develop inventories of resources and contacts. I will ensure staff are available to help communicate with the local communities and to assure a clear incident command structure when needed.

As a silver lining, I hope the Moriches whale stranding inspires community members to volunteer and to get the necessary training to have skills to respond and to perhaps help improve outcomes when another live whale strands," Bullard said.

To read the statement in full, click here.

The community was outraged that the whale was euthanized despite a tremendous outpouring of help and resources from the community; a vigil was held to mourn the whale's life after the euthanization.