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Dead gray whales creating smelly problem for Puget Sound

SEATTLE -- Washington is seeing potentially record-breaking numbers of gray whale strandings this year, which is creating a unique problem: Where do you put them?

So far this year, the stranding network has responded to 20 whales when in a typical year they only see five to 10.

Necropsies are key to figuring out why the gray whales are dying at more than twice the normal rate, but to do them, the whale has to be on a beach.

It's creating a rather smelly situation for at least one county. One of the whales ended up on the south point of Whidbey Island and it's not out of sight, according to Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson.

She said when a whale washed up in Seattle and was towed to Whidbey Island for a necropsy, she started getting phone calls not only about the smell, but also about pieces of the whale showing up in places residents did not anticipate.

"My concern is that where this whale was situated was not in a remote area," Price Johnson said. "Pieces of this whale were washing up at the public beach, boat launch and in front of people's houses. The odor I guess was just horrendous. Where I think there's a missing link is that there wasn't a local voice in that process."

Federal and state agencies work together to decide where the whales are towed for necropsies and decomposition. It's on state land, but Price Johnson said she at least wants counties to be consulted.

John Calambokidis, a biologist with Cascadia Research who performs the gray whale necropsies, said location is usually not as big of an issue.

"The number of dead whales have far outstripped any resources that we have to deal with them, so we're usually trying to find a way to make do," he said. "The ideal situation is to let whales decompose naturally in the environment the way it's supposed to happen naturally."

Calambokidis has no say in where the whales are transported for necropsies. Each necropsy has determined the whales are malnourished.

There's a range of reasons why it might be happening, but the leading theory is that there may be too may gray whales.

The population is estimated to be around 25,000, and some think the strandings and malnutrition are because the species is over carrying capacity, meaning there's not enough resources to support them all.


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