Just over 1000 whales were stranded on beaches and headlands off the UK’s coastline in 2017, according to a new report from scientists at the Zoological Society of London. That’s more than in any year since conservation organisations started tracking data in the early 1990s. Ireland also recorded a record number of stranded dead cetaceans in 2018, including five Cuvier Beaked Whales that washed ashore in a single day in August.
That single event was blamed on increased Sonar activity after military testing in the area, but there are a multitude of causes for the increased number of strandings that are occurring in the British Isles – some of which concur with global trends and others that are more localised. Fishing and plastic poisoning or entrapment were two of the biggest causes of death for the marine mammals. They accounted for nearly 40% of the just under 5000 whales that were washed up on beaches over the seven-year period of the study from 2011 to 2017. The same story is told by researchers who are looking into whale strandings all around the world at the moment.
However, in the UK’s case, a recent upsurge in cetacean populations may also be at play. If the population rises enough, you’d also expect more naturally occurring strandings to happen too. Several species of whale that are extremely rare in this part of the world have been spotted swimming of UK shores over the past few years, and this may be indicative of changing habitation for northern whales.
Around the World
However, there is no doubt that human activity is increasing the severity and frequency of whale stranding events. For example in September 2019, a pod of more than 130 melon headed whales washed up on beaches in the Cape Verde islands of the coast of West Africa and a 20ft juvenile humpback was found on rocky shoreline not far from Newcastle in Northern England. Back in July dozens of dead humpback whales were spotted on remote beaches in Iceland, and in August French authorities revealed the shocking scale of the dolphin bycatch problem in their fishing industry when councils were spotted clearing hundreds of dead dolphins off beaches for week after week. Nova Scotia was also subject to several mass strandings in 2015, although this time with a happier ending as local residents managed to save all 15 Pilot Whales in that case.
Some strandings, of course, are entirely natural. “There’s a misconception that we’re trying to stop strandings – we’re not, we’re trying to learn more about those that are due to human activities and then try and mitigate those where we can,” said one of this new report’s lead authors, Rob Deaville. However, if we want to continue to enjoy seeing these intelligent and majestic creatures traversing our oceans for the foreseeable future – those mitigating activities may have to come sooner rather than later.