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Got Space For A Dead Whale?

NOEL KING, HOST:

The number of gray whales washing up dead on West Coast beaches keeps rising. Nearly all of the whales show signs of malnourishment. Now this has led local authorities to make an unusual request to people who own waterfront property. Tom Banse of the Northwest News Network has the story.

TOM BANSE, BYLINE: So far this year, more than 90 gray whales have washed up dead from California to Alaska. The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network is running out of spots to tow carcasses that turn up in unwanted places. So NOAA Fisheries has put out the call for waterfront property owners who wouldn't mind having a dead whale dropped off on their beach to decompose naturally. The Stranding Network already has its first taker, a couple who live above a rocky beach near Port Townsend, Wash. Mario Rivera and Stefanie Worwag say they're curious to see a whale decay.

MARIO RIVERA: It's a temporary thing. And it's also very - a unique educational opportunity to see how it decomposes.

BANSE: Rivera says the 40-foot gray whale towed to their beach doesn't stink very much, nor has it attracted many scavengers, even though it's been dead for more than two weeks. The cause of death was the same as others in the current die-off, namely malnutrition from not getting fat enough last year on the feeding grounds in the Arctic. Rivera and his wife helped marine biologists examine the whale on their beach.

RIVERA: We found two pieces of plastic. But what's more disturbing is we found eel grass in its stomach. Eel grass is not part of their diet, which means that this whale was what's called desperation eating. It's like a starving human eating grass to stay alive. It can't.

BANSE: The beachfront Rivera offered is good for hosting a rotting whale because it's relatively secluded. Letting nature do its thing like this is a lot cheaper and simpler than other disposal options such as towing the big guys out to sea and sinking them with heavy weights or blowing them up into little pieces. John Calambokidis is a whale expert with the nonprofit Cascadia Research. He says West Coast states would be wise to brace themselves for more whale deaths. He says it looks like the recovery of the gray whale population bumped up against a down year in its food supply.

JOHN CALAMBOKIDIS: While I might not be alarmed yet because the gray whale is a healthy population, we have to really be on top of, is there any relationship to climate change, and does this link to any other factors that might affect other species as well?

BANSE: Two weeks ago, NOAA declared an unusual mortality event in connection with the spate of whale deaths. That freed up more money to reimburse federal, state and nonprofit partners to investigate and respond. For NPR News, I'm Tom Banse in Olympia, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.