• Right whale washed ashore at Norton Point earlier this month. 

Right Whale Carcass Washes Ashore on Chappaquiddick 

  • Friday, December 1, 2017 - 10:19am

A decomposed whale that washed up at Norton Point in early November has been identified as a North Atlantic right whale, adding to the death toll of a critically endangered species that scientists have said could be headed toward extinction.

It is against the law to remove pieces of right whales, an endangered species, from the beach. — Valentine MacEachern

Scientists visited Chappaquiddick Thursday to take samples from the severely decomposed whale, said Mendy Garron, National Marine Fisheries marine mammal stranding response coordinator Mendy Garron. The whale was identified as a portion of a right whale carcass.

Right whales are one of the most critical endangered large whales in the world. Scientists estimate the population at about 500 animals.

Trustees of Reservations Martha’s Vineyard superintendent Chris Kennedy said the severely decomposed whale washed ashore at Norton Point in early November.

“At first glance, it was really difficult to tell just what it was, other than it was a whale,” he said. “It must have been floating around for quite awhile...really nothing but just blubber, some bones, and primarily the skull.”

The whale has migrated toward East Beach since it washed ashore.

Earlier this year scientists declared right whale deaths an unusual mortality event. — Lenny Hall 

A portion of another right whale carcass washed up on Nantucket last weekend. Ms. Garron said scientists are investigating whether that is a portion of the whale that washed ashore on the Vineyard. “It could be the same whale,” Ms. Garron said. “That is something that the response team and our experts are trying to piece together.”

If the remains are identified as the same whale, the number of North Atlantic right whale mortalities will climb to 17 for the year, Ms. Garron said. This includes whales in United States and Canadian waters, and two other whales found on or near the Vineyard: one in August in Edgartown Great Pond and another in October on Nashawena island.

Earlier this year NOAA fisheries declared the high number of right whale deaths as an unusual mortality event, triggering a formal investigation by federal scientists. Right whales spend the winter in warmer southern waters before migrating north to feed on plankton in the North Atlantic.

Science Magazine reported that at a Society for Marine Mammalogy meeting in October, scientists reported that about 100 reproductively mature females remain in the species, and they are not living long enough or reproducing enough for the species to survive.

Part of the unusual mortality event declaration includes an investigation into causes of right whale deaths, among other things. Ms. Garron said it would be hard to determine what killed the whale that washed up at Norton Point based on the level of decomposition, though samples were taken and will be analyzed.

Mr. Kennedy cautioned that while scientists are allowed to take parts of the whale, others should leave it alone. An incident in which someone tried to take bones from the whale was reported and environmental police came out to retrieve the bones and have a discussion with the person involved, he said.

Ms. Garron said it is against the law to take parts of a stranded animal, though there is a beachcomber provision that allow people to keep bones off non-endangered species as long as they register the finding with marine fisheries.