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Federal authorities launch investigation into minke whale deaths

In November 2017, a minke whale ran aground near Mayo Beach in Wellfleet.
In November 2017, a minke whale ran aground near Mayo Beach in Wellfleet.(Wellfleet Police Department)

An unusually high number of minke whale deaths and strandings along the East Coast over the past year has sparked a formal investigation by federal officials.

Of the 29 minke whales that were stranded, 27 died, according to Jennie Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

On Tuesday, NOAA officials declared the recent deaths of minke whales along the Atlantic coast an “unusual mortality event” and said a “focused, expert investigation into the cause” would be getting underway.

Minkes are the third species of whale currently under this type of investigation. The federal agency is also looking into why so many North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales are getting stranded on the Atlantic Coast.

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NOAA officials said the declaration of three unusual mortality events for whales at the same time and in the same region is unprecedented.

It’s unclear whether the troubling trends for the three species are related, and NOAA officials say part of the goal of the investigations is to determine whether there are any common factors at work that could point to a single cause.

Of the 29 minke whales stranded between Maine and South Carolina over the past year, eight were found along the coast of Massachusetts, according to data from NOAA.

One death occurred in July 2017, when a dead minke whale was discovered in Oyster Pond River, an estuary that flows into a harbor in Chatham. In November 2017, a minke whale ran aground near Mayo Beach in Wellfleet but made it back to deeper water.

Minke whales are not listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and the current population along the Atlantic coast is estimated to be between 1,425 and 2,591, according to NOAA.

According to the NOAA website, 22 minke whales got stranded in Maine from May to November 2003, and 10 minke whales were reported stranded between July and November 2005.


David Abel of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.