Whale had been struck by ship

Researchers try to determine if accident or disease killed the right whale.

STAFF WRITER Cape Cod Times 4/28/99
Broken bones and internal bleeding indicate that the right whale found floating dead in Cape Cod Bay last week was struck by a ship, scientists announced yesterday. But they also said the female whale, named Staccato, appears to have been suffering from acute and chronic disease as well. It may take weeks for scientists to have a full explanation for the death of the 60-ton mammal, whose species is among the most endangered large whales on earth, with about 300 remaining. But scientists are speculating on the cause and wondering whether it could have been prevented. "I think ship strike is certainly a major player in her death," said Amy Knowlton, research scientist from the New England Aquarium. "Whether it was the sole cause in her death, we need to determine that."

Charles "Stormy" Mayo of the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown said it was likely Staccato was struck after she was last seen alive April 15 by a research team from the center. He said they reported that Staccato was behaving normally then. She was swimming and feeding in Cape Cod Bay. Staccato's 45-foot-long carcass was spotted by a whale surveillance team from the state Division of Marine Fisheries April 20. The next day, it was towed to shore to Duck Harbor in Wellfleet, where scientists spent three days performing a necropsy.

Preliminary findings released yesterday indicate the whale suffered five broken vertebrae on her right side and a broken lower right jaw bone. Scientists said those injuries appear to have been sustained at or prior to her death. She also had chronic skin and tongue lesions probably caused by an infection; blood pooling, or edema, in her lungs and within her muscles; and hemorrhaging within her intestines. Knowlton said there are indications Staccato was in poor health. But whether she was in poor health because of the trauma of being struck or because of an independent problem remains to be determined. She said such a strike could cause a concussion. If a whale goes unconscious, it can be fatal because they are voluntary breathers, she said. "If they are knocked unconscious, they no longer breathe," she said.

One thing appears certain: the scientists agree the broken bones probably did not kill the animal instantly, said George Liles, spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Woods Hole. The whale's organs, blood and tissue have been sent to several laboratories, and her skeleton has been taken to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear account for the deaths of four in 10 right whales, researchers say. Recently, the state issued its first-ever right whale alert, calling on boaters traveling within feeding grounds to watch out for the animal.

Mayo said Staccato's death will likely heat up the debate on whether stricter guidelines should be put into place protecting the whales from human-related deaths. But crafting such guidelines, he said, is difficult. "It's easy to see when an animal has been killed. It's not so easy to know what you could have done to prevent it," he said.