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FAQs on the 2016-2017 Humpback Atlantic Coast UME

NOAA Fisheries has declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for humpback whale strandings along the Atlantic Coast.  The event began in 2016 and strandings remain elevated.

Q: What is an Unusual Mortality Event?

A: An Unusual Mortality Event 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 Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events (Working Group), a group of marine mammal health experts, determines that an event meets one or more of the criteria, then a recommendation is forwarded to NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries to declare an Unusual Mortality Event.

Q:  What criteria have been met?

A: In this case, the Working Group concluded that at least two of the seven criteria established for designation of an Unusual Mortality Event has been met; Criteria 1 was met which states that "these mortalities are unusual because there is a marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature of morbidity, mortality or strandings when compared with prior records" and Criteria 2 was met which states that "A temporal change in morbidity, mortality or strandings is occurring." 

Q: How widespread is this Unusual Mortality Event?

A: Currently, increased mortalities of humpback whales have been observed along the Atlantic coast from Maine through North Carolina.  We will update Information on numbers and locations of humpback whale strandings associated with this UME on our webpage at the beginning of each month.

Q: When did the first reports of increased strandings of humpback whales occur?

A: The first reported stranding in this event was on January 15, 2016 and was a dead humpback whale reported off Virginia Beach, Virginia. Humpback whale strandings have continued to the present.

Q: What are the findings in stranded animals?

A: Many of the carcasses have been in states of advanced decomposition or floating and not been retrievable. However, partial or full necropsy examinations were conducted on approximately half of the 42 cases that occurred through April 2017. Of the 20 cases examined through April, 10 cases had evidence of blunt force trauma or pre-mortem propeller wounds indicative of vessel strike, which is over six times above the 16-year average of 1.5 whales showing signs of vessel strike in this region. Vessel strikes were documented for stranded humpback whales in Virginia (3), New York (3), Delaware (2), Massachusetts (1) and New Hampshire (1).

Q: A number of humpback mortalities were caused by vessel interactions, what is being done so this does not continue to happen?

A: NOAA, in coordination with our stranding network partners, continue to investigate the recent mortalities,environmental conditions, and population monitoring to better understand how the recent humpback whale mortalities occurred. Gross necropsy examinations reveal internal injuries and external wounds (propeller cuts) consistent with vessel interactions. At this time, it is not know the size of the vessel that each whale interacted with the leading to its death. Therefore, NOAA considers all sizes of vessels to be risks for whale species in highly trafficked areas.

Commercial and Larger Vessel Traffic

Ship speed reduction rules are in effect during high concentrations of right whales, and require vessels greater than or equal to 65 feet in length to reduce speeds to 10 knots or less while entering or departing ports. While this rule was put into place primarily for the right whale presence in New England and Mid-Atlantic waters, it does benefit other whale species that are in those areas from November through July. NOAA is reviewing ship-tracking data to ensure compliance with the ship speed reduction rule around Cape Cod, New York, and the Chesapeake Bay areas.

Recreational Boaters

We remind boaters in coastal waters throughout the region to keep a close eye out for feeding whales, and to remember to follow safe viewing guidelines, which include staying 100 feet away from the whales for your safety and theirs.

Environmental / Population Monitoring

NOAA is consulting with researchers that are conducting studies on the humpback whale populations. Current research efforts may provide information on changes in the whale distribution and habitat use that could provide additional insight into how these vessel interactions occurred.

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

A:  To our knowledge, no other animals have been impacted during this event.

Q: What is the current humpback whale population along the Atlantic coast?

A:  The best estimates for the numbers of humpback whales that reside in the North Atlantic Ocean, including U.S. Atlantic coastal waters, is 10,400-10,752 animals, based upon an international collaboration in 1992-1993 to study North Atlantic humpback whales across their known range (Smith et al. 1999, Stevick et al. 2003). The best available estimate of the average rate of increase for the breeding population is 3.1% per year (SE-0.005) for the period 1979-1993 (Stevick et al. 2003). Recently, NOAA Fisheries issued a final determination to revise the listing status of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). NOAA Fisheries divided the globally listed endangered species into 14 distinct population segments (DPS), removed the current species-level listing, and determined each DPS' status for listing. The West Indies DPS, which includes the humpback whales found along the U.S. Atlantic coast, did not warrant listing, and thus NOAA Fisheries did not include the West Indies DPS on the endangered species list. However, the population is being monitored under a 10-year post-delisting monitoring plan.

Q: What are the next steps in the investigation now that an Unusual Mortality Event has been declared?

A:  As part of the Unusual Mortality Event investigation process, an independent team of scientists (Investigative Team) is being assembled to coordinate with the Working Group to review the data collected and to determine potential next steps. The Investigative Team will develop the investigative plan. The Investigative Team will also coordinate its investigation with other on-going Unusual Mortality Event investigations. The investigation may require months, or even years of data collection, analysis, and interpretation.

Q: What additional resources are now available to pursue the investigation, since an Unusual Mortality Event has been declared?

A:  An Unusual Mortality Event declaration provides additional expertise to evaluate strandings from the Working Group (an international and multi-disciplinary team of scientists), as well as additional stranding response partners, and 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, this process will provide national and international scientific review of findings and interpretations.

Q: Will you be collecting additional biological and environmental information?

A:  The Stranding Network will continue to collect and analyze samples as needed to evaluate the situation.  The Working Group will decide whether additional information is needed.  

Q: When will you have some results to share?

A:  The Investigative Team implemented an investigative plan to collect and test samples from stranded animals. You can get the latest stranding numbers and track the progress of our investigation from our Unusual Mortality Event website. 

Q: What is the risk to humans?

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

Q: Are there any risks to pets?

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

Q: How many humpback whale Unusual Mortality Events have previously occurred along the Atlantic coast?

A: Three previous Unusual Mortality Events involving humpback whales have occurred since 2000, in 2003, 2005, and 2006. Two events involved primarily humpback whales in 2003 (16 whales) and 2006 (48 whales), and one event involved multiple cetacean species with seven humpback whales being involved in that event. Causes of the three Unusual Mortality Events was undetermined.

Q: Where can I find additional information on humpback whales and other Unusual Mortality Events?

A:  You can visit the national NOAA Fisheries Protected Resources website at

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

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

Q: What can I do to help the investigation?

A: 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. Make the report by calling 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. Again, do not approach or touch the whale. 

Additionally, the public may donate to the UME Contingency Fund using Pay.gov or at (http://www/nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/fund.html) for this or other Unusual Mortality Events and help cover costs incurred by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

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

A: To report violations or for more information on NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement call the toll-free number: 1-800-853-1964.

Q: What is the Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund?

A:  The MMPA’s Section 405 (16 USC  1421d) establishes the Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event Fund and describes its purposes and how donations can be made to the Fund.  The fund: “shall be available only for use by the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior:

Additional information on the Unusual Mortality Event Contingency fund can be found on our UME website

Q: How can deposits be made into the Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund?

A: Deposits can be made into Fund by the following:

Additionally, the public may donate to the UME Contingency Fund using Pay.gov or at (http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmune/fund.html) for this or other Unusual Mortality Events and help cover costs incurred by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Updated: September 7, 2017