Ethics came into question when rare whale was dying

UPDATE, Dec. 6
Late this afternoon, Cascadia Research posted preliminary results of a necropsy of the Bryde’s whale conducted today. Findings included the following:

  1. “The whale was an immature male measuring 34′ 5″ which externally appeared to be a female but which internal examination determined was a male.
  2. “There were at least five significant injuries on the whale, not just the two that were visible when the whale was alive. The most serious was the one visible when the whale was alive and a close examination of this showed that this blow was not only deep but had sheered off the top portion of at least two vertebra. While this injury appeared to be the likely cause of death of the animal, close examination confirmed the sighting reports that this injury had occurred many weeks or months previously.
  3. “The cause of all the major injuries and death of the animal still appears to be one or more vessel strikes.
  4. “The whale was not in great nutritional condition with a fairly thin and not very oily blubber layer.”

—–

The rare 40-foot whale that lingered in Totten Inlet near Shelton apparently died sometime Friday or early Saturday. Up until then, researchers were feeling helpless to assist the dying animal or even put it out of its misery.

A severe injury to the whale in Totten Inlet became apparent last week.
Photo courtesy of Cascadia Research

After its death, the whale was identified as a female Bryde’s whale, an extremely rare species in northern waters, let alone Puget Sound. Curiously, another Bryde’s (pronounced “broo-dess”) whale came into Puget Sound near the beginning of this year and also died in South Puget Sound. Check out the Jan. 19 report by Cascadia Research.

This second Bryde’s whale in Puget Sound was spotted on Nov. 25, although possibly related reports go back to Nov. 13. See Cascadia’s ongoing updates for details. A huge chunk of flesh was missing from the whale’s back, presumably caused by a large boat propeller.

When I talked to Cascadia’s John Calambokidis on Friday, I asked a series of questions about possible medical treatment for the animal and the potential for euthanasia — assuming researchers were convinced that the whale would die anyway. I was a little surprised to learn that John and others — including veterinarians — had already considered and rejected most options. They were feeling pretty helpless to do anything but wait.

Antibiotics?

“It has only been done in the wild on a free-swimming whales one or two times,” John told me. “It proves pretty challenging to get enough into the animal. And it is of somewhat questionable value, since the animal’s main problem may not be an infection at this time.”

Nobody likes to see any animal suffering, John said, but the idea of euthanizing the whale raises legal, ethical and practical questions:

1) Would it even be right to consider putting the whale out of its misery when there is a slim chance that the whale could survive and contribute to an endangered population? Of course, approval by federal and possibly state agencies would be needed.

2) If the decision was made to euthanize the whale, how would one go about it?

“Practically,” said Calambokidis, “you would go with two possible options.

“You could inject a large dose of drugs. Delivering that dose is challenging, but if you were successful, you have this huge toxic load to deal with.

“Another option is high-powered ballistics. But on whale this size, that would be tenuous or difficult and of questionable safety in a populated area.” If the animal were not killed immediately, the action would only increase the whale’s pain, he noted.

Despite the serious injuries, the whale was still swimming rapidly and surfacing erratically last week, so getting close enough to dispatch the animal would have been a real challenge.

I did not ask John what kind of person would be qualified to do the deed if shooting became the means of euthanasia, but that raises other legal and ethical problems.

In the end, our discussion became moot the following morning, on Saturday, when the whale was found dead on a beach in Totten inlet. A cursory examination revealed other injuries in addition to the one caused by a boat propeller.

The whale was towed Sunday afternoon to a remote site, where a necropsy is planned for this afternoon, according to the latest update.

The Bryde's whale was towed to a remote location Sunday afternoon with the help of employees from Taylor's Shellfish Farms.
Photo courtesy of Cascadia Research

21 thoughts on “Ethics came into question when rare whale was dying

  1. Nice little metaphor for Puget Sound restoration. Multiple groups… pondering this… considering that…

    Then the whale died.

  2. UPDATE, Dec. 6
    Late this afternoon,Cascadia Research posted preliminary results of a necropsy of the Bryde’s whale conducted today. Findings included the following:

    1. “The whale was an immature male measuring 34′ 5″ which externally appeared to be a female but which internal examination determined was a male.
    2. “There were at least five significant injuries on the whale, not just the two that were visible when the whale was alive. The most serious was the one visible when the whale was alive and a close examination of this showed that this blow was not only deep but had sheered off the top portion of at least two vertebra. While this injury appeared to be the likely cause of death of the animal, close examination confirmed the sighting reports that this injury had occurred many weeks or months previously.
    3. “The cause of all the major injuries and death of the animal still appears to be one or more vessel strikes.
    4. “The whale was not in great nutritional condition with a fairly thin and not very oily blubber layer.”
  3. No kidding. Doing nothing is the best solution? What a farce. If “government policy” and “toxic loads” weren’t immediate concerns, I somehow suspect the whale would have been dispatched in a humane fashion without lasting pain or the needless hand wringing.

    Cascadia Research = Fail. Grow some cajones and get stuff done.

  4. Wow guys, way to miss the point completely. It doesn’t sound like multiple groups considering this or pondering that, they made the best decision they could based on what limited information they had. Freakin’ internet people. They always know best.

    Great article!

  5. Years ago a ‘should have been put out of his misery’ young horse made me question the judgment of person I’d never doubted before.
    Had the horse been mine, it would have been put down.

    Instead, this sick horse was kept up in an sheltered small enclosed area, fed, grained, watered and left alone (pastured horses were often close by) to… ? Clearly the horse suffered.

    After perhaps a year of occasionally seeing this pathetic skin and bone creature struggle to walk, to eat and drink – it began to revive and get stronger.
    It survived and was eventually sold to a person who knew the background and used the horse to the best of its ability. The horse lived another ten or so years but never reached its full growth or blood line potential.

    In the whales case the inaction WAS action – the decision to let nature take its course.
    Sharon O’Hara

  6. I can’t remember how many times John Calambokidis and other Cascadia researchers have risked their lives going out in rough seas to free gray whales and other animals tangled in fishing nets.

    I don’t see how anyone can question their willingness or ability to take action.

    What impressed me, and why I wrote this entry, is that this nongovernmental research organization had quickly assessed the situation and considered every alternative that anyone could think of.

    I believe Sharon O’Hara called this one right: “In the whales’ case, the inaction WAS action — the decision to let nature take its course.”

  7. Magnificent photos!
    How would folks donate and do they have a choice where to earmark their Cascadia Research donation?
    Sharon O’Hara

  8. To those above who are criticizing Cascadia Research’s actions with this whale – have you ever volunteered for a marine mammal stranding or whale research organization? Have you ever done anything positive to help marine mammals? Or do you just sit at your computer acting like you know everything there is to know about these things and criticizing those who DO act?

    Cascadia Research is highly qualified and as Chris has posted above, have risked their lives to save entangled whales – something that few people on this planet are trained to do, or are brave enough to do.

    In the case of injured large whales, the public seems to think researchers can magically “cure” them – but that is usually not the case. And in severe cases where it may be best to euthanize a whale, it is often/usually not possible because of the dangers posed to the researchers and volunteers, the whale, and citizen bystanders; and given the large size of the whale, effective means of euthanizing them have not been found (although it is a top priority for NOAA and the marine mammal stranding networks who are working on this difficult issue).

    It is easy for people uneducated in marine mammal response to sit on the sidelines and criticize. Most stranding networks are made up of mainly volunteers, and funding is very difficult to obtain for these services.

    I have nothing but high regard for Cascadia’s researchers and volunteers, and for the marine mammal stranding networks in this region and across the country, who carry out the unfunded mandate NOAA Fisheries has to provide marine mammal stranding services.

    I suggest if you don’t like how things are done, that you get off your duff and get trained as a stranding network volunteer in your area, and actually DO SOMETHING to help the marine mammals of the region, and the organizations and researchers that work so hard with little compensation for doing what can be done to help them~

  9. “…Have you ever done anything positive to help marine mammals?..”

    Does not supporting charter boats making a living taking sight seeing whale hounding lookie Lou’s chasing after the whales count?
    Does not throwing fishing line or nets overboard count?
    Does non use of herbicides and pesticides and not allowing toxins to seep into our groundwater count?

    If the only folks entitled to question or count are those actually climbing into boats to help the marine mammals …. well, figure those mammals are lost.
    Volunteers and people who care do what they can on many levels beyond sea level.

    Sharon O’Hara

  10. I am curious – why aren’t we discussing measures to address vessel strikes in this conversation? That was an endangered Byrds and those are darn deep chunks taken out of its back. Exactly what happened – what size was the ship?

    Cost effective measures are being investigated to address injuries to whales (BlueLight). This is straight from the Marine Mammal Commission’s report to Congress on what it would take to recover the Northern Right Whale -

    “In terms of public investment to remedy this situation, the most cost-effective approach to protection and recovery of North Atlantic right whales would be to eliminate high-speed (>10 knots) vessel traffic and risk-conferring fishing gear (e.g., traps with vertical lines and set or drift gillnets) from the whales’ environment, or at least from areas where the whales occur most frequently. In fact, one way to assess the cost-effectiveness of these measures would be to
    calculate the public expenditures that would have been saved (i.e., available for reallocation to other priorities) if the mortality from ship strikes and entanglement had been significantly reduced in the 1970s or 1980s when the whale population apparently was increasing. To the best of our knowledge, no such calculation has previously been contemplated, much less undertaken.”
    http://www.mmc.gov/reports/workshop/pdf/rightwhalereport.pdf

    Now, the question is – what are the costs involved in ship strikes in Washington (such as down time for the ship, damage to the ship, etc), and what are potential cost-effective means of avoiding whales, which would reduce those costs?

    Cascadia Research Collective has examined the frequency and species involved in ship strikes, and found that of 130 records, 19 showed evidence of ship strikes, with fin whales the most common, possibly more susceptible to blunt force trauma than the larger grey whale, which came in second. Grey whales seemed to be more susceptible to propelled strikes. As whale populations and human populations continue to grow, they will come into contact more often with eachother, and Cascadia points out – these interactions will occur. With respect to passive acoustics, as used in the Atlantic ocean, Cascadia states it may be applicable to monitor for vocalizations in real time, notifying ships so they may take voluntary, precautionary measures to avoid whales in the vicinity. Cascadia points out for Washington, this would work best for humpback whale presence in shipping channels approaching the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Fin whales may be too far offshore, and dispersed too widely to monitor using passive acoustics.

    Anyway, maybe this was discussed in an earlier story about this whale. I have not been keeping up…the holidays and all…and I agree with Chris, Cascadia is the wildlife rehabilitation and rescue center for the sea…and they do great research. Oh, and that’s on top of paying their taxes!

  11. “Now, the question is – what are the costs involved in ship strikes in Washington (such as down time for the ship, damage to the ship, etc), and what are potential cost-effective means of avoiding whales, which would reduce those costs?”

    It seems to me that it makes more sense to work on aversion tactics to keep the whales away from the ship than to move the ships around to avoid whales that might well follow the ship avoidance movements and get hit anyway.
    Research – yes – good for Cascadia!
    Sharon O’Hara

  12. Excellent point, if cost-effective. Facing the threat of closing off large areas of the Atlantic ocean to fisherman as a result of the listing of the harbor porpoise, fishery groups agreed to work with regulatory agencies to find ways to test pinger methodology as a deterrent – but only in the face of regulatory closure. From what I understand, the pingers proved to be a somewhat effective method at reducing by-catch.

    I do not know if pingers would prove effective at deterring whales from a vessel. Vessel speed also needs to be taken into account – pingers may not be loud enough, and you cannot crank them up too much, or you would interfere with the whale’s sonar. Interesting question Sharon.

  13. BlueLight, you obviously have no interest or curiosity in the magnificent animals we are blessed with in the Puget Sound or you would know of Cascadia Research, one of the finest marine mammal research groups anywhere. The amount of your taxes going to marine-mammal-related research and protection is minuscule–do you also monitor the spending of every other of your tax dollars with such enthusiasm? Don’t you have better things to do with your time than bash citizens who go above and beyond just paying their taxes? Your federal taxes are lower than they have been in decades, so why are you complaining?

  14. BlueLight’s comments are invaluable to many of us adding to information ‘ordinary’ folks may not have…. across these boards on various subjects.

    Hard to believe but whales are only one part of the world we live in. Important though they are, passionate volunteers work just as hard on the disappearing species of turtles, tortoises, pollution …ever wonder what happens to all the equipment used to get mountaineers up mountains when its not needed? That’s right. Still there.

    Angela, I had never heard of Cascadia Research and I am passionate about our marine life and healthy waterways.
    Thanks for a head’s up reminder to thank BlueLight for making comments geared to enlighten or open a previously closed door.

    Thank you, BlueLight and all those who take the time to enlighten and inform the rest of us.
    Happy New Year 2011!
    Sharon O’Hara

  15. Sharon, your comments are perfectly reasonable, and I fully understand the valuable role that volunteers play in our society, but BlueLight’s comments to this post (I can’t speak to others) contain nothing enlightening or informative. One is a willfully misleading portrayal of the event and players in question; the other two are politically motivated comments on taxes that have nothing to do with the subject. It’s nice of you to defend him, but I see nothing of value to defend on this page.

  16. Sharon, Thanks for you kind words and your willingness to participate in forums where those profiting would just as soon you sit down, shut up and allow them – the enlightened – to handle those matters they feel you are unfit to participate in. Of course, all citizens are free to question the expenditures of their tax dollars. And, hopefully, more will join in as budgets for schools, roads, police, etc. are threatened. I certainly will (whether Angela thinks it is enlightening or informative or not). Happy New Year.

  17. They would – like the spoiled kids from your childhood – take their ball and go home. Only the ball doesn’t belong to them.

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