42ft deceased humpback whale stranded on Preston Beach in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Photo by the EPA.

Humpback whale washed up on Massachusetts beach towed away to decay; returns 2 weeks later

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UPDATE May 18:

Swampscott Town officials have been working with NOAA and EPA this week to develop a disposal plan. The disposal plan is to move the whale off the rocky narrow beach it is currently at, and move it to nearby land where it can be buried. This was determined as the best option due to the decomposition of the whale.

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May 14:

The humpback whale carcass was observed in Swampscott. A satellite tag had been attached to track the whale carcass on May 2, and the offshore release location had been chosen to minimize the possibility of the carcass coming back to shore.

The whale did not decompose as quickly as expected, however, and yesterday was observed off Marblehead, MA, before landing in Swampscott. Swampscott town officials and MA Environmental Police are aware of the landing, and are working with NOAA and EPA to develop a disposal plan.


42ft deceased humpback whale stranded on Preston Beach in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Photo by the EPA.

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April 25:

On the evening of April 25, NOAA and town officials in Marblehead, MA were alerted of a deceased humpback whale floating close to shore. Overnight, the whale landed on Preston Beach, a narrow, rocky, private beach. Since there is currently no stranding network member covering this area of MA, neighboring partners traveled to the scene on Friday with NOAA staff to take external measurements, samples to test for diseases, and a genetic sample.

Even at low tide, the whale was in shallow water. Many factors complicated the ability to conduct a more thorough examination of the whale – this beach was accessible by stairs, and heavy equipment could not be brought in. NOAA coordinated with the town who expressed safety concerns with leaving the whale in place over the weekend, so the whale was towed to a nearby mooring while further logistics were planned.

Large whales, including this 42 ft long, 65,000 lb humpback whale, are difficult to move under the best circumstances. NOAA’s best practices for the disposal of a large whale are to:

1. Bury the whale on a sandy beach (this is our preferred option),
2. Move to a landfill or compost site, or
3. Tow out to sea – which requires an emergency permit from the Environmental Protection Agency

In some cases, where a whale washes up in a remote location or an area that is difficult to reach with heavy equipment, the best option may be to let it decompose naturally where it landed.

After exploring multiple options to remove the whale and bring it to a land-based disposal site, the town, EPA and NOAA agreed that offshore disposal would be the appropriate response for this challenging case. The Town requested an emergency permit from EPA and EPA issued the permit under the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act on April 29 for disposal of the carcass. Marblehead Town officials contracted a local marine towing company, who brought the carcass out to approved coordinates far offshore and out of shipping lanes, where it will naturally break down and feed the environment.

This was done in close coordination with the US Coast Guard to avoid creating a hazard to navigation.

While our stranding network partners seek to obtain the best science and data from stranded animals, it is not always possible to complete a full necropsy on every dead marine mammal that washes ashore. NOAA and our stranding network partners often face challenges such as staffing and resources, the decomposition of the animal, location and accessibility of appropriate heavy equipment. The disposal of a marine mammal carcass ultimately lies with the property owner, though local municipalities may assist private property owners at their discretion. A disposal plan must be in place with all stakeholders and property owners before a necropsy can begin.

Disposal Plan: The Town secured a plan that was provided by the EPA and the Town received an emergency permit from the EPA outlining the procedures for the disposal of the carcass. Working with NOAA on this, the plan consisted of having the carcass towed from its secured location out to sea. The designated area is approximately 15 miles east of the Stellwagen Sanctuary. A set and drift plan was created through NOAA to make sure that the remains didn’t end up back ashore. A transmitting tag will be placed on the carcass to be able to track the drift. This operation began on May 2nd at 7:30 am. This was determined as the best option due to the nature of the surrounding landscape and the size of the mammal.

Thank you to our stranding network partners, the town of Marblehead, US Coast Guard, and EPA for all their help.
Information on necropsies: https://bit.ly/3vTdiqK.

To report a dead or injured marine mammal or sea turtle, call NOAA’s stranding hotline at 866-755-6622, or locate your local partner here: https://bit.ly/2s7cWJe.

Information on EPA Emergency MPRSA Permits: https://bit.ly/3UG0YUO.”-

About Michael Silvia

Served 20 years in the United States Air Force. Owner of New Bedford Guide.

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