Frequent Questions - 2017-2018 Minke Whale Unusual Mortality Event

NOAA Fisheries declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for minke whales from in the North Atlantic from Maine to South Carolina.  This event began in January 2017 and strandings remain high, with the most recent stranding occurring near the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina on January 10, 2018.

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What is an Unusual Mortality Event (UME)?

An UME is defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as a stranding event that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response. There are seven criteria used to determine whether a mortality event is "unusual." If the national Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events, a group of marine mammal health experts, determines that an event meets one or more of the criteria, then it forwards a recommendation to NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries to declare a UME.

What criteria have been met?

In this case, the working group concluded that three of the seven criteria have been met these include the following criteria:

  1. A marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature of morbidity, mortality or strandings when compared with prior records.
  2. A temporal change in morbidity, mortality or strandings is occurring.
  3. A spatial change in morbidity, mortality or strandings is occurring.

How widespread is this minke whale UME?

Currently, increased mortalities of minke whales have been observed in the North Atlantic from Maine through South Carolina with highest strandings in Massachusetts, Maine and New York. 

Are there any connections between the current, active UMEs for humpback whales and North Atlantic right whales and this minke whale UME? What is happening in the Atlantic that is causing all of these UMEs for different species?

We don’t know yet if something is happening in the Atlantic that is causing all of these UMEs for different species, which is why the work of our stranding networks and researchers is so important. Currently, there is no direct connection between the three UMEs but the respective investigative teams will stay abreast of the investigations and evaluate if there are any connections in the future. We currently do not have one cause of stranding or death that is common across the three species involved in the different UMEs, additionally strandings across the three species are not clustering in space or time.  Part of the goal of the investigations is to determine if there are commonalities in the findings from the three species that could point to a single cause, but as of yet no single cause has been identified.

When did the first reports of increased strandings of minke whales occur?

The first reported stranding in this event was on January 12, 2017, when a dead minke whale was reported near La Guardia Airport, New York.  Minke whale strandings have continued to the present.

What are the findings in stranded minke whales?

Full or partial necropsy examinations were conducted on 18 whales.  Basic morphometric and photographic data was collected for six additional whales, and fives whales were not examined. Preliminary findings show eleven whales have had suspect or confirmed evidence of human interaction (n=2) or fisheries interaction (n=9).  Eight whales have findings of suspected or confirmed infectious disease. Final results are still pending for the majority of the cases. 

Have other marine mammals or animals been affected by this die-off event?

To our knowledge, no other animals have been impacted during this event.  There are ongoing UMEs for humpback whales and North Atlantic right whales, but findings to date in the minke whales are not completely similar to those UMEs.

What is the current minke whale population along the Atlantic coast?

The best recent abundance estimate for the Canadian East Coast stock is 2,591 (CV=0.81) minke whales. This estimate, derived from 2011 shipboard and aerial surveys, is the only current estimate available (2016 NMFS SAR).  The minimum population estimate is 1,425 animals.  Minke whales are not listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and the Canadian East Coast stock is not considered strategic under the MMPA.

What are the next steps in the investigation now that an UME has been declared?

As part of the UME investigation process, an independent team of scientists (investigative team) is being assembled to coordinate with the working group to review the data collected and determine potential next steps.  The investigative team will develop an investigative plan and coordinate with other ongoing UME investigations.  The investigation may require months, or even years of data collection, analysis, and interpretation.

What additional resources are now available to pursue the investigation, since an UME has been declared?

An UME declaration provides additional expertise from the working group (an international and multidisciplinary team of scientists) and additional stranding response partners, as well as access to additional funding through the National UME Contingency Fund.  In addition, a detailed investigative plan will be developed that may include more targeted necropsies; further testing of samples for biotoxins, bacterial or viral agents; and diagnostic pathology services. Finally, through the UME process all finding and interpretations undergo national and international scientific review.

Will you be collecting additional biological and environmental information?

Stranding network partners will continue to collect and analyze samples as needed to evaluate the situation. The working group will decide whether additional information is needed. 

When will you have some results to share?

The investigative team will begin developing an investigative plan in the next few months. You can track the progress of our investigation from our main UME webpage.

What is the risk to humans?

Large whales are wild animals and may injure people if approached closely.

Are there any risks to pets?

Pets should always be kept away from marine mammals, particularly diseased or dead marine mammals.

How many minke whale UMEs have previously occurred along the Atlantic coast?

Two previous UMEs involving minke whales have occurred-in 2003 and 2005. The 2003 UME was in Maine and ranged from May to November 2003.  It involved 22 minke whales, no definitive cause was determined, however ~41% (9 of 22) of the whales had evidence of fisheries interaction.  The 2005 UME was a multi-species large whale UME that ranged from Maine to Maryland and from July to November 2005.  Only 10 minke whales were involved and no definitive cause was determined.

How many other large whale UMEs have previously occurred along the Atlantic coast?

Six previous or current UMEs involving large whales have occurred in the Atlantic basin in 1996, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2016-2017 (current), and 2017 (current).  Three events involved primarily humpback whales in 2003 (16 whales), 2006 (48 whales), and 2016-2017 (59 whales to date). The 2016-2017 investigation is active and still ongoing.  Two events involved North Atlantic right whales in 1996 (6 whales), and 2017 (16 whales). The 2017 investigation is active and still ongoing.  The 2005 event involved 34 whales of multiple cetacean species. Causes of the four closed UMEs were undetermined (n=3) and human interaction (n=1). The current 2016-2017 humpback whale and 2017 North Atlantic right whale UMEs are still under investigation.

Where can I find additional information on minke whales and other UMEs?

You can visit the national NOAA Fisheries Protected Resources webpage.

What should people do if they encounter a dead large whale floating or stranded on the beach?

Please immediately contact your local stranding network or local authorities to report a live or dead stranded whale:

  • From Maine to Virginia, call (866) 755-NOAA (6622).
  • For North Carolina to Florida, call (877) 433-8299.
  • Do not touch the whale.
  • Don’t allow pets to approach the whale.
  • Observe the animal from a safe distance of 100 yards (safe for you and the animal).

What can I do to help the investigation?

The most important step members of the public can take to assist investigators is to immediately report any sightings of live whales in distress or stranded or dead whales. Call the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at (866) 755-6622, the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at (877) 433-8299, or contact the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16. Do not approach or touch the whale. 

Additionally, the public may use to donate to the UME Contingency Fund this or other UMEs and help cover costs incurred by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

What should people do if they witness harassment of a whale in the water or on the beach?

To report violations, please contact NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement at (800) 853-1964.

What is the UME Contingency Fund?

MMPA section 405 (16 USC 1421d) establishes the Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event Fund, describing its purposes and how the public can donate to the fund. According to the MMPA, the fund “shall be available only for use by the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior:

  • To compensate persons for special costs incurred in acting in accordance with the contingency plan issued under section 1421c(b) of this title or under the direction of an Onsite Coordinator for an unusual mortality event.
  • For reimbursing any stranding network participant for costs incurred in preparing and transporting tissues collected with respect to an unusual mortality event for the Tissue Bank.
  • For care and maintenance of marine mammal seized under section 1374(c)(2)(D) of this title.”

The National Contingency Plan for Response to Unusual Marine Mammal Mortality Events outlines the types of expenses that are reimbursable under the fund and the process for requesting reimbursement.

Learn more about the UME Contingency Fund.

How can deposits be made into the UME Contingency Fund?

The following can be deposited into the fund:

  • Amounts appropriated to the fund.
  • Other amounts appropriated to the Secretary for use with respect to UMEs.
  • Amounts received by the United States in the form of gifts, devises, and bequests under subsection (d) of section 405(d) of the MMPA.

The public may use to donate to the UME Contingency Fund for this or other UMEs and help cover costs incurred by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.