BOSTON – What is a city or town to do when tens of thousands of pounds of rotting whale flesh washes up onto its shore?
That's one question the Metropolitan Beaches Commission weighed Tuesday, seemingly spurred to consider marine mammal carcass disposal by a scenario that unfolded along Massachusetts shores last September. A dead 30-foot humpback whale washed up on a rocky patch of the coast in Cohasset, was towed back out to sea by town officials and later washed up on Revere Beach, where it was buried.
Discussion of that whale of a hot potato sparked a feisty defense of Cohasset from Rep. Joan Meschino and a plea from Revere Rep. RoseLee Vincent for the Department of Conservation and Recreation to be more mindful about how it disposes of dead whales moving forward.
Representatives from the New England Aquarium and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration presented on the recent wave of marine mammal deaths in Massachusetts waters. Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium, said Massachusetts sees many whale deaths because of its proximity to the feeding grounds of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
He said that some whales simply die of natural causes and wash up, while others perish after being struck by a ship or becoming entangled in fishing gear. LaCasse explained to the commission that when a dead whale washes ashore, it is the responsibility of the property owner to dispose of it after officials conduct a necropsy and in consultation with NOAA.
"It's a unique problem to have. I often refer to it as a negative jackpot. You're all of a sudden a town manager on the South Shore and you've got a humpback whale that's all of a sudden washed up onto your beaches and now [you're] responsible as the manager of this municipality for disposing of 60,000 or 100,000 pounds of rotting whale flesh," LaCasse said. "Depending on the location of that, if it happens to be in a high-density beach in the summertime, then it's a significant challenge. You're going to need heavy equipment and you might need some cash."
Connie Marigo, director of the New England Aquarium Rescue and Rehabilitation Program, said her team and NOAA typically work with a city or town to facilitate disposal of the dead whale, especially if the necropsy involves cutting the whale into smaller pieces that could be buried or towed out to sea.
Marigo then brought up the humpback whale that washed up in Cohasset on Sept. 9. LaCasse said the aquarium was not involved in the disposal of that whale because it had been dead for so long that there was very little biological benefit to studying the carcass.
"That whale was actually towed out by Cohasset. That whale sat on the beach for days in Cohasset and we received multiple calls from concerned citizens that people, children, had gone down to this rocky beach and were touching it and interacting with it," she said. "One of the last calls we got was that children were actually jumping up and down on a piece of the whale that had become separated from the whole body."
That's when Meschino, who represents Cohasset in the House, interrupted to defend her district.
"I represent Cohasset and if you're going to be casting aspersions on the town, choose your words carefully because I take exception also to you coming in here and choosing to blame the lobster fishing industries for all of the whale deaths when you began sitting here telling me that in fact, you want to do necropsies. So either you've assumed what the problem is and they don't need to be done, or you need to do them," she said, adding that Cohasset was "guided and told" what to do with the dead sea mammal. "So choose your words carefully as you present to this commission."
Marigo responded that she could only speak from her own personal experience with the Cohasset whale wash-up, "and my experience with that situation was I tried to reach the town administrator and the only person that was calling me back on the town's behalf was the harbormaster, who wasn't authorized to make some of the key decisions that needed to be made."
Meschino responded, "We have a state representative and a state senator, I suggest you establish working relations with them." Then commission co-chair Sen. Brendan Crighton suggested the group not get specific and simply discuss the issue of dead whale disposal generally.
Vincent, a lifelong resident of Revere who represents the city in the House, said Revere already deals with so many other environmental burdens that it should not also have to serve as a burial ground for whales that other municipalities tow out to sea.
"It just seems so unfair that a city that is environmentally impacted in so many ways and has so much environmental justice and yet some communities, the whales aren't being buried on their shores but they're being buried on the shore of these metro urban beaches," she said.
Vincent asked the NOAA and aquarium officials what they would think about legislation to prohibit DCR from burying dead sea mammals on the metro beaches. Vincent and Crighton have filed legislation (H 893/S 440) which would do exactly that and direct DCR to "develop an appropriate policy for the disposal of these dead creatures that does not include burial on the metropolitan beaches or towing them to sea in such a way that they could wash ashore on another location."
The marine officials were not enamored of the idea, which only Rep. Maria Robinson has co-sponsored.
"The state of the carcass can sometimes limit options. If it is very decomposed and the tissue is really degraded, it becomes very hard to physically move those pieces of tissue so burial is often one of the better options for cases like that," Mendy Garron, NOAA's Marine Mammal Stranding Response Program coordinator, said. "I would caution against limiting burial because if you limit your options, you may have that one carcass where the only way to safely dispose of it is to bury it and I would hate for the state to lose that option."