Lots to learn from dead whales: biologist

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Josh Pennell
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DFO, museum may take ownership of remains

The tide turned quickly on two endangered blue whales whose carcasses washed up recently in the small communities of Trout River and Rocky Harbour. What would have been considered a magnificent sight when alive turned to a tragic one when they were spotted floating in Bonne Bay.

They have since become a nuisance and health hazard. The whales are believed to be two of nine that were crushed in the ice off the southwest coast of the island. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has taken samples from the whales and is planning on doing so with the others if they become accessible.

Tonya Wimmer, a biologist with the Marine Animal Response Society, says groups need to come together to learn more from the dead whales.

“Anytime we have an opportunity to learn I think we need to take it. And I think in particular when it comes to species at risk, I think we actually have a responsibility to take it,” she says. “We need to understand in order to know what actions to take.”

Wimmer suggests that while samples are certainly beneficial, a more thorough necroscopy would help scientists learn a lot more about the animals and how they died. Building as much knowledge as we can about species at risk may mean the difference between their survival and their extinction, she says.

The debate over who’s responsible for such a valuable specimen isn’t what’s important, Wimmer says.

“At this point it’s not really about placing blame. It’s about doing what we need to do and doing what’s right for either helping the animal or understanding it.”

While it’s expected that this whale and the others were crushed in ice, Wimmer suggests taking it for granted may not be wise.

“Maybe there are things that we can look at to confirm that just so we know.”

If nothing else, she says, we can learn more about the internal signs that suggest such a death for future carcasses that wash ashore. And while there’s no legal requirement to do an autopsy the animal, she adds there’s a general understanding particularly of the value to do it.

 

Whose whale is it anyway?

Now that they’re ashore, the remains have become the responsibility of the municipalities of Trout River and Rocky Harbour. But how a small community is going to deal with 80 tonnes of rotting whale has been making international headlines.

DFO announced Wednesday evening that it is working on an agreement with a Canadian museum to take ownership of the whales.

That potential agreement aside, beached whales belong to muncipalities.

“I’m not totally surprised in the response that this is now a municipal issue,” says Wimmer.

Canada still doesn’t quite have its act figured out when it comes to this stuff, she says. There’s a fine line between when the whale is a federal responsibility and when it becomes a municipal one.

Some people have found the humour in it, though. There’s even a website called hasthewhaleexplodedyet.com. Other people on Facebook are taking bets on when the swelling creatures may blow.

Which begs the questions: can that actually happen?

“The whole idea that it could just blow up is mostly a myth. That’s not to say it hasn’t happened in the past under extreme conditions,” says Wimmer. “You can essentially fit two to three to four elephants in a full-grown blue whale’s mouth when they have it fully expanded, so they have a lot of room to have gases build up.”

Those gases have places through which to escape, though.

“But the biggest thing is if people are poking at it, if they’re walking on it, if they’re near the animal doing something to it then, yeah, you’re increasing the chances of it potentially blowing up,” she says.

When doing a necropsy on such bloated beasts, scientists need to be very careful where they initially cut to let gases out, Wimmer says, comparing it to letting the air out of a tightly filled balloon without popping it.

She says safety aside, there are other reasons people shouldn’t go near the whale.

“The other thing, on the other side, is it’s a tad bit disrespectful. This is an endangered species. This is an (individual) that probably died in not a great way. People walking all over them is really just not tactful,” says Wimmer.

The debacle over who deals with the whale and the fact that so little up to this point has been done to study the carcasses all points to the fact that Canada really has a long way to go in trying to figure out how to deal with these responses, she adds.

The elephant in the room, if you will, is still about making the most of a rare and tragic event. Nine dead specimens from an endangered species will not likely present themselves again.. Wimmer says there are a lot of groups with the knowledge to do great work with these carcasses.

“We just need to see the commitment and the co-ordination and the effort to actually want to do this stuff, and I think that’s a bit what we’re lacking at this moment,” Wimmer says.

 

josh.pennell@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Marine Animal Response Society

Geographic location: Canada, Trout River, Rocky Harbour

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