Long Islanders mourn euthanized humpback whale

Nearly 200 people gathered along the shore of Long Island's Moriches Bay this past weekend to mark the death of a humpback whale that was found stranded on a sandbar in shallow water last week.

Craig Ruttle/AP
A humpback whale pops up in the waters between 48th Street and 60th Street as seen from New York City, with New Jersey visible in the background, on Nov. 20, 2016.

About 200 people tossed carnations on Sunday into Long Island’s Moriches Bay near the Moriches Coast Guard station to honor a humpback whale that was euthanized by veterinarians on November 23.

The 33-foot-long mammal – which weighed between 15 and 20 tons – was first spotted grounded on a sandbar in the bay on Nov. 20. It got stranded there likely because it was ill, according to rescue officials. The shallow bay is an unusual site for whale visits, though they are becoming more common along the coastline in the region, with one spotted recently, and very unusually, even in New York’s Hudson River.

Last week, rescue officials from Riverhead Foundation of Marine Research and Preservation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said that the whale’s only hope for escape was a high tide that would carry it back into the water, but that never came.

Rescuers were unable to dislodge the mammal and determined that hauling it off the sandbar would have further injured the already thin, weak, and barely responsive whale, according to Craig Harms, a professor of Aquatic Animal Medicine at the North Carolina State College of Aquatic Veterinary Medicine, who observed the whale last Wednesday.

Officials said the whale also had neurological abnormalities and possibly infections. They felt there was no choice but to sedate the mammal and then euthanize it. A necropsy was planned for after the whale was removed from the bay.

Despite the bleak fate of this one humpback whale, the species in general has rebounded from near extinction caused by widespread commercial whaling and environmental threats. In September, federal officials removed nearly all populations of humpback whale – one of the Earth's largest mammals – from the endangered species list. The whale first appeared on the list in 1970.

At the time the removal from the endangered list was called "a true ecological success story," said Eileen Sobeck, the assistant administrator for fisheries at NOAA, in a statement.

The agency deemed that nine of the 14 populations of humpback whale species, including those that winter in Hawaii, the West Indies, and Australia, no longer need Endangered Species Act protection. However, the whales that breed off Mexico and feed off California, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska will be listed as "threatened."

Despite the success, some warn that even though whales are not longer classified as endangered and that whaling is illegal, the whales still face challenges.

"These whales face several significant and growing threats, including entanglement in fishing gear, so ending protections now is a step in the wrong direction," Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement in September.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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