DFO scientist warns of health hazards posed by decomposing whales

Gary Kean
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The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) says it will likely be up to the local and provincial governments to find a way to dispose of rotting blue whale carcasses on the shorelines near Trout River and Rocky Harbour.

There are now three of the mammoth marine mammals beached in the vicinity, including one on the beach near Bakers Brook just north of Rocky Harbour.

The one in Trout River is about 85 feet long and could weigh as much as 80 tonnes. The other two are similar in size and will be just as difficult to remove before the odour and other hazards associated with decomposition become a bigger problem.

Jack Lawson, a research scientist with DFO's marine mammals section, said the onus usually falls to the municipality — if it is affected — and then the province.

“Under the Species at Risk Act, the blue whale is listed as endangered, so we have to provide someone with a Section 73 permit, which would allow them to collect or dispose of these animals,” Lawson said in an interview Monday.

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Such a permit would be given to governing authorities, but the whale in Trout River has already been subjected to an unauthorized removal of sorts.

Someone has taken the liberty of sawing off one of the animal’s fore flippers without obtaining the required permit to do so.

“Anyone possessing these parts is actually committing an offence and I would discourage people from doing such collections,” warned Lawson.

In addition to legal issues, there are a raft of health concerns with being in contact with — or even close proximity to — a rotting whale, whether it’s an endangered species or not.

Besides the various bacteria and viruses a dead whale can carry — some of which are airborne — Lawson expressed concerns about images of people walking up on the bloated throats of the blue whales. He said the decomposition gases causing the swelling could soften the connective tissues of the carcass and someone walking on it could fall into the corpse.

Given the size of the whales and the fluids and other hazards that would be inside, Lawson said someone could suffer a rather nasty demise if they fell inside a large, decomposing whale.

“I have had the experience of falling up to my waist into a rotten pilot whale before and it’s not very nice,” he said.

Getting rid of the carcasses will inevitably involve heavy equipment. Lawson said the options include burying the bodies in a deep trench nearby or hauling them away to a more remote location where nature can continue the decomposition process without as much bother to humans.

It is likely that the whales will have to be broken into pieces in order to be removed from the beaches, noted Lawson.

Despite the lingering hazards and offensive odours the advanced decomposition will bring, Lawson said the removal process may be easier if nature is permitted more time to soften the remains before they are cut up and taken away.

Whatever is decided, Lawson said DFO will provide whatever expertise and advice it can.

Even after the animals are removed, Lawson said people will need to continue being mindful of any residual contamination of these areas due to fluids leaking from the rotting whales. For instance, mussels in these areas might become tainted.

“I do feel great sympathy for the people who have an 85-foot dead mammal sitting on their beachfront,” said Lawson. “That’s not good at all.”

Lawson said there has been some interest expressed in obtaining the blue whale skeletons for display in a museum.

He would love to see that happen in this case, but said DFO would expect such an interested party to shoulder the cost of collecting and processing the skeleton.

Similar endeavours to recover blue whale skeletons for display elsewhere, said Lawson, have cost more than $250,000 to carry out.

“It would be a very nice thing for people to get to see (the skeleton of) an animal that’s one of the biggest things that has ever lived,” he said.

The three beached whales are believed to be among a group of nine blue whales found dead on the

coast of southwestern Newfoundland earlier this spring. Four more dead whales were visible in the slob ice off the Rocky Harbour area last week, and Lawson believes they may have moved further offshore with that ice.

Since the whale in Rocky Harbour has now deflated, Lawson hoped the others still at sea have also collapsed and sunk below the surface so they are not obstacles to navigation.


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Geographic location: Trout River, Rocky Harbour, Southwestern Newfoundland Western Star

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Recent comments

  • David
    April 29, 2014 - 13:04

    Where's the entrepreneurial spirit in this community. Sounds like there is $250 grand in bones, probably $50 grand in oil not to mention there are probably bizarre parts of these things that the Japanese or Norwegians will pay a fortune for. Lastly, if blue whales produce any kind of ambergris, there is big money to be made. That thing is a gold mine. Get off your butts and harvest this thing. The Feds should get out the way and issue any permit they need.

  • Mary
    April 29, 2014 - 11:55

    For the sake of the population living there,someone had better do something soon,if there,s a fallout from this,i.e people getting very sick,they,ll pay out a lot more money,transferring them to various health facilities.

  • Joe
    April 29, 2014 - 09:40

    Get somebody with a large enough caliber rifle to shoot the carcass (safely) and penetrate the blubber so that the gasses can escape, tow the thing out as far as possible, maybe weight it to sink. If the carcass can fill with water and gasses escape, it may sink?