An orca from the Southern Resident Community of Puget Sound that Ken Balcomb has been surveying since 1976.
One fact is not in dispute: whales and dolphins have been stranding for as long as they've lived in the oceans. Most of them die at sea, either from old age or disease, and then wash ashore with the tide. Occasionally, they strand alive, usually alone, sometimes in groups. For the vast majority of whales that strand alive, the beach is their final destination.
When Congress passed the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, it assigned Fisheries with the task of enforcing its provisions and determining if any laws, civil or criminal, had been violated. Any marine mammal that stranded on US shores or nearby coastlines immediately became the property of Fisheries for investigative purposes. But Congress never properly funded its marine mammal mission, and Fisheries was none too eager to embrace it-especially when fishing and marine mammal interests conflicted. Until the 1970s, the agency's central focus had been managing the country's fishing stocks for the benefit of American fishing interests. When dolphins became ensnared in tuna fishermen's nets, or when orcas competed with fishermen for Chinook salmon, it was Fisheries' job to untangle the legal and commercial threads. In the minds of many Fisheries administrators, whales would always be "fish out of water" at their agency.
But the same public that had pressed Congress to pass the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passionate about saving whales and other marine mammals. Volunteer stranding response groups quickly sprang up along American coastlines to alert Fisheries of stranded animals. By the late 1990s, Fisheries was coordinating over a hundred local groups of volunteers inside its National Stranding Response Network.
Most citizens volunteered in hopes of rescuing stranded whales from the beach. In reality, relatively few marine mammals stranded alive, and most that did ended up dying on the beach. In 1999 approximately 1,500 marine mammals-including whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and manatees-beached on US shorelines. All but two hundred of them had already died at sea, mostly from disease or old age. Of the two hundred that live-stranded, some were euthanized by Fisheries officials. Most of the others soon died of exposure to the elements, or suffocated when their bodies collapsed under their own weight, or drowned when the high tide washed over their blowholes. Only five marine mammals that stranded live that year were actually rescued from the beach and returned to the ocean.
In the case of most strandings, Fisheries's primary job was to safely dispose of the bodies. A dead whale was an ideal environment for anaerobic microorganisms and can quickly become a biohazard. Beyond containing the immediate health risks associated with active bacteria, Fisheries faced the engineering task of removing gigantic carcasses from the beach. It costs tens of thousands of dollars in manpower and heavy equipment to dismember, remove, and dispose of a single large whale.
Beyond beach cleanup, it was also Fisheries's responsibility to sort out the why's and wherefores of any "Unusual Mortality Event," or U.M.E, as defined by the Marine Mammal Protection Act: "A stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response."
In response to a stranding it designated as "unusual," Fisheries would dispatch one of a small roster of marine mammal pathologists to the scene to investigate, perform a necropsy on-site and recover evidence for laboratory analysis. Fisheries investigations sometimes became crime scenes whose evidence trails led to prosecutions. If, for instance, a hunter or a hooligan had used a harbor porpoise for target practice, a pathologist with the right training and equipment could compile a complete ballistics profile. As human development increasingly encroached on marine habitats, more whales and dolphins turned up dead or dying on beaches. Many drowned after becoming entangled in fishing nets and floating plastic refuse. Fatalities from collisions with commercial ships and recreational boats increased year by year. And runoff from agriculture fertilizer created toxic, sometimes lethal, algae blooms that passed up the food chain from zooplankton to fish, and finally to whales and other marine mammals.
Despite the rise in marine mammal deaths from human activity, Fisheries designated relatively few strandings as Unusual Mortality Events. From 1991, when the UME investigative program was initiated, until a mass stranding in the Bahamas in 2000, fewer than twenty events had been so classified, and most of those involved seals and dolphins. Fisheries had resisted classifying any whale deaths connected to the navy exercises as "unusual." While the investigative pathologists were civilians working at academic researcher labs like Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, those same labs and researchers were usually funded by the Office of Naval Research. The potential for conflicts of interest was ubiquitous.