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NOAA to hold public session on Moriches Bay whale response

A meeting Tuesday will discuss the stranding of

A meeting Tuesday will discuss the stranding of a whale in Moriches Bay on Nov. 23, 2016, and plans for a new collaboration among agencies responding to strandings in the region, officials announced last month. Credit: Ed Betz

Federal officials will hold panel discussions Tuesday night on lessons learned after widespread public anger over the response to a young whale stuck on a sandbar in Moriches Bay last year.

For days, the cries of a 30-foot humpback whale echoed into homes along the bay after it was found beached in shallow water Nov. 20.

After warning off local officials and members of the public ready to help, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dispatched a veterinarian on Nov. 23. By then, the juvenile female’s health had deteriorated, leading to euthanization.

NOAA officials, veterinarians and whale experts will also discuss results of the whale necropsy, the challenges of rescuing a large mammal and plans for a new collaboration to respond to marine mammal strandings on Long Island. Questions and comments from the public will also be taken.

The public meeting will be opened by John Bullard, the regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region, who had posted an apology Dec. 9. He admitted the public could have been better informed of experts’ ongoing discussions over what to do and said the agency could have been quicker to talk to state officials about using local resources. That wasn’t done until the day before the whale was euthanized, he said.

The panel of experts will include representatives from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, the lead local agency contracted by NOAA to handle local strandings; NOAA’s stranding and emergency response coordinators for the region; and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The 15-ton whale had been seen swimming in the bay the week before it was grounded and showed behavior consistent with feeding, the Riverhead Foundation had said at the time. While it is unusual to see humpback whales in Moriches Bay, they are commonly seen off Long Island’s South Shore.

Riverhead Foundation biologists went out in boats to monitor the animal’s condition and create waves in an effort to move it. But the effort, done with the support of the Southampton Town Bay Constable and state DEC, was unsuccessful.

As word of the whale’s dilemma spread, crowds gathered along the shore to watch and hope. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Brookhaven Town officials had offered equipment and other help. Civilians tried also, including some who arrived on a barge with an excavator to dig a hole next to the whale to help it dislodge itself.

But federal law protecting whales forbids people and vessels from getting close, and even though they said the beached whale would likely have to be euthanized, federal and local authorities warned that the whale could be hurt by efforts to free it.

A veterinarian who examined the whale the day before its death concluded the mammal had significant cardiovascular injury and showed signs of neurological damage. The necropsy found a hematoma on its tail, a possible sign of a vessel strike or some sort of trauma, but it was unclear early on whether this played a part in its death, a NOAA spokeswoman said at the time.

The meeting will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. at Brookhaven Town Hall in Farmingville and is open to the public.

Those who cannot attend may call in on 866-647-1746 and give participant code 6042534.

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