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Experts look into the cause of increased whale deaths in the New York Bight

People look at a dead, 35-foot humpback whale, in Lido Beach, New York, Jan. 31, 2023. A female whale was found on Rockaway Beach, in the Queens borough of New York, on Friday, Feb. 17, the 12th in the New York and New Jersey area and the 23rd found along the East Coast, according to the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society.
Seth Wenig
People look at a dead, 35-foot humpback whale, in Lido Beach, New York.

Federal agencies, New York and environmental groups are looking into possible reasons for a recent uptick in whale deaths, most of which were discovered on Long Island and New Jersey beaches.

Experts say the number of whales washing ashore on east coast beaches have skyrocketed in recent months. Thirty whales, including humpback and minke, have been discovered since December, mostly in or around the New York Bight.

Robert DiGiovanni is chief scientist at the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society in Hampton Bays. He said an abundance of food has allowed whale populations to make a comeback in the region.

“I think of it this way...If I’m at a buffet and there’s food, I’m sticking around. If there’s no food, I’m not going to hang out. I’ll move to the next course,” DiGiovanni said.

A 2019 law put restrictions on the harvest of menhaden in New York waters. Better known as bunker fish, it is a favorite food of many marine animals.

DiGiovanni's team has surveyed 83 stranded whales since 2017, performing necropsies on 56 of them. They found that most of the whales had died from vessel strikes or entanglements in fishing gear, debunking a popular theory that blames whale deaths on offshore wind development surveys.

Sabrina is host and producer of WSHU’s daily podcast After All Things. She also produces the climate podcast Higher Ground and other long-form news and music programs at the station. Sabrina spent two years as a WSHU fellow, working as a reporter and assisting with production of The Full Story.