Scientists investigate large number of humpback whale deaths off East Coast

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About 14 whales usually die in the region annually ― but they documented 26 deaths in 2016 and nine this year.

A jump in humpback whale deaths along the East Coast since the beginning of 2016 is stumping scientists and has prompted federal officials to pursue an investigation into the possible cause.

The death rate of humpback whales has been unusually high off the east coast of the United States.

Costidis said the stranding program's main mission at whale-stranding events is to determine a cause of death that might provide actionable information to better manage the species.

While no humpbacks have died off Cape Ann recently, last May, the 29-year-old Foggy was discovered entangled in fishing gear about 4 miles off the coast of Gloucester and Rockport. The agency said that 10 of the dead animals dies in the aftermath of a ship collision.

This story has been corrected to attribute a comment about past mortality events to Deborah Fauquier, a veterinary medical officer with NOAA, instead of Mendy Garron, NOAA's regional stranding coordinator.

In addition to the minke whale that died after landing on Orchard Beach on Sunday, whales washed ashore in Queens on January 13 and April 4.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has officially declared it to be an unusual mortality even, or a UME.

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Officials said it was not exactly clear why more humpbacks were coming into contact with ships.

Out of the 41 dead humpbacks, scientists have conducted necropsies on 20 of them.

Asked if NOAA expects this alarming trend to continue, Goebel admitted that it's hard to say without knowing the cause of the increase in humpback deaths, but they hope not. They have no signs of infectious disease or abnormal level of biotoxins - a poisonous substance produced by a living organism, such as algae, that could cause death in a marine mammal.

Greg Silber, NOAA Fisheries large whale recovery coordinator, said their investigation has only just begun, but numerous humpbacks have shown evidence of vessel strikes.

NOAA also declared "unusual mortality events" involving humpbacks in 2003, 2005 and 2006, Fauquier said.

"They're seeing these animals washing up with no apparent external injuries so that's the question and that's why it's a UME because no one has answers yet", says Schoelkopf.

Humpback whales in the North Atlantic are no longer considered endangered, with an estimated population of almost 21,000, potentially accounting for the rise. Its cause of death is not part of the federal investigation.