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Tracking whale remains to demonstrate the advantages of sustainable disposal

A new study that emphasizes sustainable, culturally and environmentally beneficial offshore removal or decomposition has been inspired by a series of whale strandings on the East Australian coastline and worries about proper disposal options for the remains. The research “Dead on the beach? Predicting the drift of whale remains improves management for offshore disposal” has released this information.

The case study was led by Dr. Olaf Meynecke of Griffith University’s Whales and Climate Research Program. It involved the discovery of a dead 14-meter female humpback whale lying in the coastal seas at Noosa Heads, Queensland, in July 2023, most likely as a result of a ship strike.

The body was discovered washing up on the coast, diverted 30 km offshore, and given a satellite tag that allowed its whereabouts to be tracked for six days as it drifted with the tides and wind until sinking to the bottom.

Although it is always sad to see these gentle giants go, Dr. Meynecke said that the remains offered a unique scientific chance to test and create a prediction method for the whale drift trajectory, allowing the whales’ nutrients to remain in the marine ecosystem and helping decision-makers.

“As we’ve seen more and more whales stranding on Australian beaches in past years, the effective, safe, and culturally sensitive removal of whale remains near or on public beaches has become a major issue,” he stated.

“Our study shows that forecasting of where whale remains might end up when floating at sea is possible with surprisingly high accuracy.”

The most popular technique in Australia for removing whale remains from beaches is to have them relocated to a landfill. There are seven documented methods for doing this.

Additional techniques include sinking the remains, using explosives to break them down, composting, burying, shipping to a rendering factory for by-products, and natural decomposition on the shore. These techniques can be expensive, logistically challenging, and potentially dangerous for the public’s health.

Whale remains have previously been disposed of in Australia and other countries by towing them out to deeper waters, as demonstrated in this pilot project headed by Dr. Meynecke. However, not all of these methods were successful since the remains would float back to shore or would obstruct shipping channels.

According to Dr. Meynecke, these discoveries have the added advantage of preserving the nutrients from decomposition within the marine ecosystem and hence provide a preliminary forecasting tool for predicting where whale remains will drift. Whale remnants must be broken down quickly, and scavengers like tiger sharks are essential for this process.

“By integrating scientific research and practical management strategies presented in our study, we can enhance our ability to predict and effectively manage the drift of whale remains, ensuring that ecological benefits are maximized while minimizing adverse impacts.”

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