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NOAA apologizes for handling of stranded whale on Long Island

Officials examine the 33-foot humpback whale stranded in

Officials examine the 33-foot humpback whale stranded in Moriches Bay, on Nov. 23, 2016. Credit: Ed Betz

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration official has apologized for the organization’s handling of a beached whale found on a sandbar in Moriches Bay in November.

In a statement posted online on Dec. 9, John Bullard, regional administrator of the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region, addressed criticisms from residents that experts didn’t do enough to save the whale.

“We’re sorry there wasn’t more explanation and discussion with the community about the dialogue among experts and decisions being made,” he said.

A young, 33-foot-long humpback whale was spotted Nov. 20 on a sandbar in the bay. The animal drew a crowd of residents who sought to help it before experts ultimately decided to euthanize it on Nov. 23.

A veterinarian who examined the whale last month said the creature was suffering and euthanasia was the most humane option.

“Contrary to public perception, there was constant monitoring of the whale and of local environmental conditions (weather, wind, and tides) by Riverhead Foundation staff and other local experts,” Bullard said.

NOAA officials, however, could have been quicker to have conversations with the state about using local resources to help, which didn’t happen until a day before the whale was euthanized, Bullard said.

NOAA, the state and the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Life and Preservation officials discussed whether to attempt moving the whale and how to address its injuries, but the results of those discussions were not shared with the public, he added.

The Riverhead Foundation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The public was prohibited by federal law from approaching the whale, though concerned citizens said they tried to offer support and equipment that wasn’t used.

Bullard said this week that NOAA was not aware of the civilian offers until Nov. 22. By then, it was too late. In one plan, local citizens proposed using a barge equipped with an excavator to dig a hole next to the whale to help the animal dislodge itself. That idea was rejected by experts due to whale’s injuries.

In past rescues, whales that were able to get back into the water often restranded or died days later, and trying to move the animals could make their injuries worse, Bullard said.

“We recognize all this context does not mend the heartache the Moriches community feels about the stranding and death of the young humpback whale,” Bullard said. “With this and all other stranding events, we learn and improve future responses.”

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