Update: Dead whale response slow, partly due to govt vehicle policy
Wildlife biologists and first responders from the Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources were unable to conduct an immediate assessment of the dead beaked whale that was stranded in Afono waters last week, and this was partly due to the hold on 24-hour government vehicles.
The Lolo-Lemanu Administration has made it a priority to monitor the use of government vehicles by allowing only department directors, first responders, and those with prior approval from the Governor’s Office to operate vehicles with 24-hour stickers. All other vehicles will be impounded.
The dead whale was reported at 7:03 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 24 but DMWR representatives were not able to respond until the following morning.
The delay in response has caused some public outcry, with residents saying that there are health issues involved like the foul smell of a dead animal, not to mention the swarms of flies and other animals trying to get a piece of the dead carcass.
According to the narrative, the whale was stranded across from Afono Elementary School, making the immediate disposal of the carcass a priority. A few calls were made by the village to report the foul smell of the animal.
DMWR wildlife biologist Alden Tagarino said the decomposing animal was “a potential health and safety risk to the people in the village, especially the students and teachers of the elementary school—hence the importance of immediate response to deal with the situation.”
DMWR head Dr. Ruth Matagi-Tofiga noted that many people are involved in this process (responding to strandings) and a review is needed to better respond to these types of situations, particularly those which happen at night or after hours. “We want to account for our vehicles, but we also want to serve the public to the best of our ability,” she told Samoa News.
Upon arrival, the DMWR first responders concluded that the stranded cetacean already had moderate decomposition, and it was in fact a beaked whale, not a six-foot dolphin as initially reported to DMWR through the Turtle and Dolphin Hotline. The whale was on the beach at the tide line, lying on its right side parallel to the shore.
Permission from land owner Va’alele Maiva Mao was granted to use the adjacent land for disposing the carcass.
An earth mover needed for the disposal operation was coordinated by Tafito Aitaoto for the response, and an excavator from CTC (Continental Transport Co.) helped in the disposal of the carcass.
A necropsy headed by Dr. Kristi West, Stranding Program Director at Hawaii Pacific University was later conducted and tissue samples taken during the necropsy are awaiting shipping documentation with Hawaiian Air Cargo. The samples will be shipped to Hawaii Pacific University for further laboratory analysis.
The dead whale was a pregnant 12-footer that is believed to be a new species for American Samoa.
The bones collected after the necropsy were buried at Afono, and will be exhumed after six months for re-articulation.
Tagarino said the village and school will be the potential partner for a project of re-articulating the bones. He added that outreach and education campaigns on marine mammal strandings will be conducted at the school before the bones are exhumed.