An abnormal number of fin whales has been found washed up on France’s western shores with no apparent sign of external collision, raising concerns among experts of a potential viral pathogen.
Marine biologists on Monday used a mechanical digger and long knives to dissect one of the cetaceans taking samples to find evidence of the cause of the deaths.
Just in the past month and a half, at least six fin whales – the second largest species of whale after the blue ones – were found dead. All have been malnourished and shown evidence of haemorrhaging in the cardiac and respiratory systems.
The latest was discovered on Friday near Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez. It measured nearly 16 metres (52 feet) and weighed an estimated 10 tonnes.
In an average year, between three and, at most, 10 whales are deposited dead on France’s beaches, scientists say.
“We have what is almost an epidemic or, at any rate, an abnormal spike in deaths,” Willy Dabin, a researcher from the Pelagis Observatory working on the corpse, told Reuters news agency.
“The question lurking in the background is: Are humans a contributing factor in their capacity to upset the environment?” Dabin asked. “Either by impacting food availability or polluting the living environment, which could leave the whales more vulnerable to disease,” she said.
Experts at the Observatoire Pelagis examine the carcass of a fin whale which was found stranded on a beach in Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, France [Stephane Mahe/Reuters]Officials put guards near the carcass at the weekend to keep intrigued locals at a distance.
“It’s disgusting,” said one local man. “I don’t know how they’re going to remove it. Cut it up piece by piece?”
While these fin whales had no apparent sign of having been hit by a ship or caught in a trawler’s net, human maritime traffic and plastic waste continues to pose a threat to fin whales.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that between 10 to 40 fin whales die each year in the Pelagos sanctuary – a marine area subject to an agreement between Italy, Monaco and France for the protection of marine mammals – due to fishing nets or collision with vessels.
The risk of more of these kinds of accidents is likely, according to WWF, which predicts that maritime traffic is set to increase by 4 percent each year for the next 10 years.
Overall, more than one million land and marine species across the globe are threatened with extinction due to human activity, according to a damning report released by the United Nations last year. This is a record number compared with any other period in human history.