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Dead fin whale washes ashore in Burien, victim of ship strike

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A dead adult fin whale, the apparent victim of a ship strike, washed onto the beach of Seahurst Park mid-morning today. Biologist Dyanna Lambourn and interns from WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Marine Mammal Investigations (WDFW-MMI), Cascadia Research biologists John Calambokidis and Jessie Huggins, and staff and students from MaST Center of Highline Community College examined the whale and answered questions from the public. Seal Sitters volunteers participated as well.

Most of the rear half of the whale was missing, but the animal was estimated to have been approximately 65 ft in length when intact. Fin whales are the second largest species of whales with a maximum length of 75 ft. Bruising from brunt force trauma is an indication that the whale was still alive when struck by the bow of a large ship. Red paint from the ship was on the whale’s body. Fin whales, an endangered species, are susceptible to mortal wounds because of their size and their tendency to feed near the water’s surface. Since 2002, Cascadia reports there have been 10 stranded fin whales in Washington waters, 8 of which had evidence of vessel collisions (including today’s whale).

These large baleen whales are vulnerable to ship strikes as they travel in waters along our Pacific coast, particularly in busy shipping lanes such as Los Angeles and Long Beach, California. Gray whales and their calves migrate from Baja California to Alaska through these containership congested waters. Blue whales, the largest of all cetaceans and listed as endangered, are in peril of deadly collisions as they forage on krill in the shipping lanes. In 2007, three blue whales were struck and killed by ships in the Santa Barbara Channel.

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Baleen whale mortality rates have been on the rise in recent years with increased annual shipping traffic. In 2009, California passed legislation requiring vessels traveling close to shore to burn cleaner fuels; this prompted many ships to change routes through whale feeding grounds. Marine mammal research biologists such as Calambokidis (shown above) have been studying the impact of vessel collisions on whale populations whales in California and the Pacific Northwest. These studies advocate for regulation changes to shipping lanes, such as reduced vessel speed and alternate routes.

The WDFW-MMI and Cascadia team is making efforts to have the animal towed to a remote location for necropsy. Read Cascadia’s preliminary report here. Studies by both Cascadia and WDFW-MMI on whales and vessel interactions can be found on Cascadia’s website.

Responses such as this by members of NOAA’s NW Marine Mammal Stranding Network are in large part funded by the John H. Prescott Fund, which has been eliminated from the 2014 fiscal year Federal budget. Contact your congressional representative here, asking that this critical funding be restored.

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