State official says plastic played role in endangered whale’s death

Young, emaciated whale beached itself on Masonboro Island

State official says plastic played role in endangered whale’s death

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - “It was a tough day to be on the beach, especially with a young whale, where we may have had something to do with its demise,” said Bill McLellan, state stranding coordinator and professor of marine biology at UNCW.

McLellan reflected on a stressful Sunday when he and his team were called to Masonboro unexpectedly after reports of a stranded whale on the shores of Masonboro Island.

“We literally were running, trying to get a team out to the beach, but the location was not easy to get to,” McLellan said.

Upon arrival, they found a 17-foot Sei whale, a rare type of baleen whale.

“We know very little about them," McLellan said. "There may be just a few thousand out there. We know that they are endangered.

“We don’t know where it came from or their migratory habits. We don’t think they migrate much, so perhaps it was moving back and forth in the mid-Atlantic.”

After examining the whale and consulting with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the on-site volunteer veterinarian made the call to euthanize the whale.

“It was terribly emaciated, thin, no blubber, and so it would have been unethical to put the whale back in the water with the same problem it had," McLellan said. “Predators would have finished it off.”

The problem, according to McLellan, was plastic found lodged in the whale’s esophagus, along with lots of seaweed.

Sea weed and plastic was found lodged inside the whale's throat
Sea weed and plastic was found lodged inside the whale's throat (Donovan, Chelsea)

“When we did the necropsy, we opened the oral cavity and it was completely clogged,"McLellan said. “The whale wasn’t able to feed because food couldn’t get into its mouth so this could have been the beginning of the cause of death or the continuation. We just have to stop throwing plastic in the ocean.”

The team from UNCW plans to send the skull and the jaw off for research. The rest of the whale was cut up and spread across the beach where it will decompose or wash back into the ocean.

McLellan says the skull and jaw could be placed at the Smithsonian Institute or a museum in Raleigh.

(Robbie Johnson)

More tests were taken and sent to California, Chicago and Raleigh for research to gain more perspective on a this rare breed of whale.

Ann Pabst, a marine biologist from UNCW, could only recall one other Sei whale stranding in North Carolina dating back to the 1990s.

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