So many gray whales have washed up on the coast of Washington state this year that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has run out of space to bury the decomposing carcasses.
After an unprecedented die-off that has seen over 70 gray whales stranded along US coastlines so far this year, local organizations have struggled to dispose of the huge animals, which can grow up to 12 meters (40 feet).
The government agency is now asking private landowners with waterfront properties to volunteer their land as somewhere to allow the whales to rot.
2019 has seen the largest number of gray whale strandings in the US since 2000, when 100 whales washed ashore. NOAA has declared it an Unusual Mortality Event (UME), meaning this is an unusual significant die-off and requires an investigation.
Washington State has seen 30 dead whales wash ashore around Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, the most in 20 years, and now most of the known locations where whale carcasses can be left to decompose naturally are full. So, to deal with the unusual number, the agency has put out a call for people with beachfront properties to volunteer their land as a final resting place for the creatures.
By volunteering a site, landowners can help support the natural process of the marine environment, and the skeletons left behind will be used for educational purposes, NOAA Fisheries said.
One couple in Washington state has already said yes, and is currently hosting a 12-meter (40-foot) male on their property. Stefanie Worwag and Mario Rivera are volunteers at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, which responds to marine mammal strandings. They took on the carcass after it washed up on the shore north of Port Ludlow. They allowed it to be towed to their beachfront property in Port Townsend and are curious about how long it will take to decompose.
“How many opportunities do you get to watch something like this happen right out in front of you?” Rivera said.
Neither seems bothered by the smell, a concern for most considering volunteering. “Actually it’s not too bad,” he said, adding that the stranding network used by the Science Center is testing out the use of hydrated lime to speed up the decomposition and mask the smell.
While the number of strandings this year has been deemed a UME, which helps to get funding to investigate the whale deaths, it does not cover the cost of whale carcass removal and disposal. In fact, if a whale washes up on private land, it is the responsibility of the owner to dispose of the animal.
So far, the reasons for the high numbers this year are unclear. Investigations have shown that many whales were emaciated, suggesting they are starving to death. Gray whales spend the summer in the northern Bering and Chukchi seas, where they fill up on tiny crustaceans before migrating south to Mexico for winter. Rising sea temperatures off Alaska may be affecting their main food source: amphipod crustaceans.
However, other factors need to be considered, as NOAA points out, many whales deaths go unreported as they may sink or be eaten out at sea. If you do see a stranded or floating whale you should report it immediately via the contact details here.