FAQs on the 2015 Large Whale UME in the Western Gulf of Alaska
NOAA Fisheries has declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for large whale strandings in the Western Gulf of Alaska. The event began in May 2015 and strandings remain elevated.
Q: What is an Unusual Mortality Event?
A: 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 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 UME.
Q: What criteria have been met?
A: The Working Group concluded that at least one of the seven criteria established for designation of an UME has been met. 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.
Q: How widespread is this UME?
A: Currently, increased mortalities of large whales have been observed along the Western Gulf of Alaska, encompassing the areas around Kodiak Island, Afognak Island, Chirikof Island, the Semidi Islands, and the southern shoreline of the Alaska Peninsula. Additionally, large whale strandings have increased during the months of July and August in the waters off of British Columbia, Canada. We are working with our international colleagues at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture to share data and test results as they become available.
Q: When did the first reports of increased strandings of large whales occur?
A: The first reported stranding was on May 23, 2015 and was a dead fin whale calf in Marmot Bay on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Large whale strandings have continued to the present.
Q: What are the findings in stranded animals?
A: Most carcasses have been floating and not been retrievable. The majority have been in moderate to severe decomposition with only one whale sampled to date.
Q: What type of large whales have been stranding?
A: This event involves 30 large whales to date including: 11 fin (Balaenoptera physalus), 14 humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae), 1 gray (Eschrichtius robustus) and 4 unidentified cetaceans (as of mid-August).
Q: Have other marine mammals or animals been affected by this die-off event?
A: Recently colleagues in British Columbia, Canada have reported 6 dead stranded large whales (1 fin whale ship strike; 1 sperm whale; 4 humpback whales) in northeastern Pacific waters along the central British Columbia coast and Haida Gwaii (formerly, the Queen Charlotte Islands). Between August 7 and 13, four humpbacks and one sperm whale were reported dead in British Columbia and 2 have been necropsied. Samples have been collected and analyses are pending. Additionally, a common murre die-off was reported in early June along the Alaska Peninsula and birds were seen in unusual numbers in nearshore areas with many appearing weak and approachable by skiff. We do not know whether the bird mortalities were related to whatever killed the whales.
Q: What is the current large whale population in the Western Gulf of Alaska?
A: The best estimates for the minimum population size for fin, humpback, and gray whales in the north Pacific is approximately 1,365; >10,000; and minimum of 20,125 individual whales, respectively, based upon recent NOAA Fisheries Stock Assessment Report for these species in 2014.
Q: What are the next steps in the investigation now that an UME has been declared?
A: 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 to determine potential next steps. The Investigative Team will develop the investigative plan and coordinate its investigation with other on-going UME 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 UME has been declared?
A: An UME declaration provides additional expertise from the Working Group (an international and multi-disciplinary team of scientists), additional partners, and access to additional funding through the UME Contingency Fund. In addition, a detailed investigative plan for the investigation 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 is in the process of developing an investigative plan to collect and test samples from stranded animals. You can track the progress of our investigation from our UME website.
Q: Is there any link to these large whale deaths to the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown?
A: It is highly unlikely. From the one fin whale which was accessible to investigators, muscle samples were sent to the University of Alaska Fairbanks for radionuclide analysis, specifically cesium 134/137. Preliminary results do not suggest any unusual exposure to human-generated radionuclides, specifically cesium, that would be considered harmful to wildlife. Further testing is underway.
Q: What is the risk to humans?
A: Marine Mammals are important food items for coastal communities in Alaska. Alaska Natives have long help cultural ties to marine mammals, and it is common for parts of stranded animals to be consumed as food. NMFS is aware that food security for these communities is of the utmost importance. Food safety assessment generally falls under the State Department of Environmental Conservation and is not under NMFS direct authority. NOAA Fisheries is not aware of any food safety considerations associated with last summer's event, but will continue to assess food security issues should a similar event reoccur in 2016.
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 large whale UMEs have previously occurred in Alaska?
A: This is the first large whale UME in Alaska. Only two other UMEs have been declared in Alaska. One involved pinnipeds in 2011 and the other involved sea otters in 2006.
Q: How many large whale UMEs have previously occurred in the United States?
A: There have been 6 large whale UMEs previously declared across the United States. Three were in the northeast, one was in the southeast, one was in the southwest (California), and one spanned the Pacific west coast. One involved northern right whales, one involved grey whales and the other four involved humpback, blue and other baleen whales.
Q: Where can I find additional information on large whales and other UMEs?
A: You can visit the 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 (in Alaska call 877-9-AKR-PRD (877-925-7773).
- 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)
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 Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 877-925-7773, or contact the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16. Again, do not approach or touch the whale.
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:
- 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; and,
- 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.
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:
- amounts appropriated to the Fund;
- other amounts appropriated to the Secretary for use with respect to Unusual Mortality Events; and
- amounts received by the United States in the form of gifts, devises, and bequests under subsection (d) of section 405(d) of the MMPA.
Additionally, the new Pay.gov website for the UME Contingency Fund will be launched soon and this site will allow the public to donate to this or other UMEs and help cover costs incurred by the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
Updated: August 21, 2015