What's Killing All Those Whales? Three stories

IHTMexico's Maritime Mystery: What's Killing All Those Whales?
9 dead within 2 weeks. Usually there are 10 death a year

Feb. 18 — Mexican authorities are investigating the mysterious deaths of eight whales found washed ashore along the Sea of Cortez (see map below) last month, an unusually large number that suggests someone or something is killing them off.

Area of whale deathsThe whales come from several plankton-eating species and apparently died at sea in November and December, biologists said. But they do not show any signs of having been caught in long-line fishing nets, which sometimes suffocate the mammoth animals. Nor have biologists found any signs of a toxic spill or outbreak of disease that would account for their deaths.

"Right now it's a mystery," said Luis Fueyo, an assistant federal prosecutor for environmental crimes, who is overseeing the investigation. "We have a puzzle."

The first sign something was wrong came on Jan. 4, when the remains of two humpback whales were spotted on the shore near the town of El Dorado in Culiacan State.

Scientists determined they had died in early November. Since then, six more giant bodies have turned up, among them a third humpback, a minke whale, a fin whale and a baby gray whale. Three bodies were discovered on Jan. 18 during an aerial search of the Sinaloa coast.

The discovery of the carcasses set in motion a frantic search for forensic evidence worthy of an episode of "C.S.I." Biologists tracked currents to determine if all the whales might have been in the same place when they died, even though they ended up scattered over a 500-mile coastline.

The investigators also looked for signs of disease or poisons, both natural and synthetic. It was slow going. All of the bodies were badly decomposed. Only the baby gray whale provided enough tissue to test for diseases or poisons.

On Friday, environmental officials announced that those tests had found no evidence of a toxic algae bloom, other poisons or infections. Nor have the investigations turned up signs of mistreatment by fishermen.

The deaths occurred just as about 2,000 gray whales began arriving in the Sea of Cortez, where they spend winter every year as part of a centuries-old migration. Mexican officials say they usually find about 10 dead whales a year; 9 in the space of two weeks have set off alarm bells.

Environmentalists say the Sea of Cortez, one of the world's richest fisheries and most diverse marine habitats, is poorly policed and substantially overfished, because the Mexican government has granted more and more permits for trawlers to use long-line nets...

"I'm worried," said Homero Aridjis, a poet and naturalist who heads the Group of One Hundred, an environmental organization. "We are just starting the year and already we seem to see a dead whale every day. Something is happening there and it needs to be investigated."

Mr. Fueyo, however, said none of the bodies showed signs of wounds from nets on their fins, nor signs of other trauma that might have been caused by fishing boats.

Biologists also did not find the usual tell-tale massacres of fish and sea birds that would accompany a toxic bloom of algae or another release of poisonous materials.

"What's happening is totally irregular," he said. Read the story in the International Herald Tribune here, and comment below.

Sun SentinelWhale's death sparks temporary gill net ban in East Coast waters

JACKSONVILLE -- The death of an endangered North Atlantic right whale last month has prompted federal officials to temporarily ban all gill net fishing off the Florida and Georgia coasts through the end of their calving season.

The area from Savannah, Ga., through Sebastian Inlet, Fla., will be closed to gill net fishing through March 31, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service said. Both Florida and Georgia ban gill net fishing in state waters, so most of the gill net activity occurs well off shore. David Bernhart, assistant regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Service, said officials estimate the ban will affect about 15 fishermen and have a total economic impact of about $75,000...

Recreational boaters reported the dead 18-foot right whale calf to the U.S. Coast Guard on Jan. 22. The whale was towed to shore in Duval County where experts from the Marine Mammal Stranding Network performed an examination of the carcass.

The calf had wounds from entanglement in gill net fishing gear and had not been able to nurse for at least a day before its death. The North Atlantic right whale population is now estimated to be approximately 300 animals and is listed as an endangered species...This is the second right whale calf to have died off of Florida's northeast coast this year. The first calf was reported on Jan. 10. Preliminary findings suggest that the whale was struck by a ship... Read the rest of this Sun Sentinel story here, and comment below.

CNNJapanese testing new whale killing 'warhead'
By JONATHAN LEAKE and JULIAN RYALL, CNN

TOKYO, Japan (30 Jan 2006) -- Japanese whalers  are testing a high-tech fragmentation harpoon (on right), equipped with an enlarged charge of high explosive, to help to slaughter endangered whales in the seas around Antarctica.

Ja[panese harpoon gunThe device is being used to kill humpback and fin whales, after Japan's unilateral decision to break with an international consensus to protect them.

The revelation comes just a week after Britain was held spellbound by attempts to rescue a bottlenose whale that became disoriented in the Thames. It died of dehydration.

The explosive harpoons hurl shards of metal through the whale's body to sever major nerves and blood vessels and so cause rapid death.

Experts from Japan's Institute of Cetacean Research are aboard the whaling fleet of eight catcher boats plus support vessels to determine the effectiveness of the super-harpoon.

Masayuki Komatsu, executive director of the Japan Fisheries Research Agency, said that standard harpoons, used to kill minke whales, could not ensure a swift death for larger whales.

"Because new species have been added to the research project this year which are larger than a minke whale, we thought we would need a bigger grenade on the end of the harpoon to ensure the killing is instantaneous," he said.

The move has infuriated Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, a more radical group, which regard it as a step towards the resumption of commercial whaling...Read the rest of this CNN story here, and comment below.

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