LIHUE — The five pilot whales that died on Kalapaki Beach after the Oct. 13 stranding weren’t diseased and some are questioning whether there’s a connection with the state’s Lehua Island rat poisoning project or military sonar.
Scientists briefed the House committee on Energy and Environmental Protection and the committee on Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs on Tuesday on their findings from necropsies of five whales that beached themselves on Kauai.
At the briefing, scientists said the whales had full bellies of squid and fish, which is unusual for strandings.
That triggered questions about whether feeding habits near Lehua Island poisoned the animals.
“I’m so suspicious there will be a cover up. It’s too coincidental that so soon after the rat poison is dropped, we have this stranding,” said Rep. Dee Morikawa (D-16). “These whales eat the squid that may have eaten the poison dropped in the ocean. That is what I suspect happened.”
The state’s project to rid Lehua Island of non-native rats involved dropping rodenticide-laced cereal bait pellets from a helicopter onto the island in three waves — on Aug. 23, Aug. 30 and Sept. 12.
“If the whales passed Ni’ihau and saw a lot of dead fish and squid, they’d have a field day eating them and that’s what I’m suspecting happened. I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong,” Morikawa said. “I want to make sure we have an agency we can trust looking into this and getting the correct information out.”
Rep. Jimmy Tokioka (D-14) also attended the briefing and raised questions about a potential poisoned food chain causing the whales to strand.
Included in the panel was Kristi West, who directs necropsy and cause of death investigations for whales throughout Hawaii as a research scientist and affiliate faculty member at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii.
“What we do know is we’re looking at an acute cause,” West said. “We’ve been able to rule out sickness and disease in the five animals, though unfortunately we don’t know about the others.”
West said now that she is aware of the possibility of the rat poison be passed on by ingesting the squid, it will also be tested.
Tokioka asked if there was any evidence that the whales had been harmed from acoustic trauma from sonar.
David Schofield, the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, Pacific Islands Region Office, said no. He said there is no evidence to support that. He said the U.S. Navy reported that no training took place using sonar within five miles and 24 hours of the stranding.
West said there is a population of about 19,500 pilot whales in the waters within 200 miles of the Hawaiian Islands and on average, one pilot whale dies from stranding a year.
In the Kauai case, 17 pilot whales were beached, five died and the rest returned to the open ocean.
Schofield said there has been an increase in strandings over time due to stress from pollutants in the oceans.
“What we use on the land ends up in the sea,” Schofield said.
Four different groups of pilot whales live around the Hawaiian Islands, she said, and three of them are resident to specific areas. The fourth is pelagic and moves throughout the open ocean around the islands.
The 17 whales that moved into Kalapaki Bay on Oct. 13 were most likely part of that open ocean population and didn’t have any infectious diseases, according to West.
According to the necropsy findings, four of the whales were mature — which is older than nine years of age for pilot whales — and one male was immature. The largest whale was a 14.4–foot male and the smallest was a 9.5-foot female.
In addition to looking at biotoxins, disease and sickness as a driver for the stranding event, West said other causes for pilot whale strandings could be entanglement with debris and boats, and anthropogenic noise such as sonar and echosounders.
Distilling whether underwater noise, such as sonar or other anthropogenic noise, affected the animals will take time because scientists have to wait four months for the animals’ inner ear bones to decalcify for testing.
“We’re looking at a delay in having the results interpreted,” West said.
No evidence of entanglement was found, but scientists did find 15 pounds of plastics and other debris in the largest male pilot whale’s digestive tract.
“He was still in good body condition, but it probably would have been debilitating to him in the long run,” West said.
The largest female whale had extensive bleeding along her body wall at the time of necropsy, and scientists believe this could be attributed to the breaching and ramming activity associated with the stranding.
“We have reports of some (whales) hitting the rocks and breaching and we think that would explain that level of physical blunt trauma,” West said.
It could take a year for the picture to fill in, scientists say and a case is never truly closed since samples are archived and can be tested at later dates.
“My goal here is to get answers as well,” West said. “Lots more information will be trickling in.”
Rep. Chris Lee (Kailua, Waimanalo), chair of the Energy &Environmental Protection committee and Rep. Kaniela Ing (Kihei, Wailea, Makena), chair of the Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources &Hawaiian Affairs, held the briefing after hearing public and cultural concerns about the stranding of the whales.
“It’s important that we look into these type of stranding to see what effects human pesticides, debris and noise have on the wildlife in our oceans,” Lee said. “And to see what can be done to prevent this type of thing in the future.”
Ing asked about the possible cause of this stranding.
“When marine mammals strand themselves it’s usually a signal that something in our environment is out of sync,” said Ing.