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Pacific Islands

MMR removes whale carcass from Aitutaki reef

Saturday 27 November 2021 | Written by Caleb Fotheringham | Published in Environment, National

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MMR removes whale carcass from Aitutaki reef
A humpback whale carcass washed up on Aitutaki reef was discovered early last week by Air Rarotonga pilots without its head and tail. Photo by Charlotte Piho - 21102724

A whale carcass that was discovered over a month ago on Aitutaki’s reef just above Honeymoon island is being removed by the Ministry of Marine Resources.

The head of the Ministry of Marine Resources (MMR), Pamela Maru, said the decaying whale was being removed because it could have adverse effects on the immediate and surrounding ecosystem.

“Concerns around coral smothering over an extended period, along with the release of decaying biological material such as oil, may result in coral mortality,” Maru said.

“It is also located in the vicinity where MMR stocks pa’ua (giant clams).”

Maru said the removal was being carried out as a precautionary measure.

She said the whale also had “a very strong odour” which was another reason why it was being removed.

The whale is being removed in sections by MMR staff and two members of the public, who are using rope to slowly tow the whale out to sea.

Maru said the job should be completed before the end of this week.

In a Facebook post, MMR said Aitutaki’s marine research station manager, Richard Story, towed a portion of the whale out to sea a week ago, releasing it 2km offshore.

Prayers were made for the whale prior to the beginning of the removal process and also when the portion of the whale was released in the ocean. The removal of the section took three and a half hours.

On October 19, Air Rarotonga flew photographer Charlotte Piho to Aitutaki to examine the carcass.

Piho found the carcass was missing the head and tail, which she said was unusual because of the strength of the whale.

Piho said she hoped the disengaged head and tail was not a result of human interference and whale hunting.

Marine biologist, Ticiana Fettermann, who viewed Piho’s photos said although it was unusual for the tail and head to be missing, the whale was in an advanced stage of decomposition.

“The whale washed up in the reef was dead for a while, days even weeks (old),” Fettermann said.

She said whale deaths were not an uncommon incident globally.

“Collisions with large vessels, entanglement in fishing gear, and noise pollution are the some of the main threats that whales face today.”

MMR said scientists were unable to determine the species of whale and the cause of death because the whale had been deceased for a considerable amount of time before it was found.

“It is not uncommon for deceased whales to wash ashore in the Cook Islands or to find live whales stranded or beached,” MMR’s Facebook post said.

“The subpopulation of humpback whales that visit the Cook Islands every year are considered to be ‘not at risk’ by scientists, and significant conservation efforts have allowed their populations to rebound after being nearly extinct.”

Fettermann said whales provide a huge amount of food and nutrients to the environment.

“They are an important part of the ecosystem and it becomes a feast of food source for big predators, like sharks, to small sea creatures.

“Dead whales are the most food-rich particles in the ocean, within organic carbon, lipids and proteins.”