Thursday, September 20, 2007

Blue whale buried on beach

Last weekend a blue whale washed ashore near Hobson County Beach up the coast from Ventura. It attracted crowds of onlookers as scientists dissected the 70 foot carcass. (Necropsy determined that the whale was hit and killed by a ship large enough to crush its huge bones.)

Because it was close to the campground, and perhaps due to the lack of beach in front of the seawalls, the remains were towed 2 miles down the coast and buried in 4 feet of sand, just upcoast of Faria Beach.

Whale blubber and the strong odor of rotting flesh were evident in the surf zone as far downcoast as Surfers' Point on Sunday, during the C-St Longboard Contest and Aloha Beach Festival. This week portions of the whale were exposed by wave action, and downcoast impacts continued. Past experience in southern California has shown that white sharks will be attracted to the coastal zone, potentially creating an increased risk of shark attacks.

There have been record numbers of blue whales in the Santa Barbara Channel this year, and apparently there is another dead whale floating toward the coast. Concerned citizens are petitioning authorities to determine appropriate protocol and not repeat this in the future.

It is interesting to think that in the past, marine mammals provided carrion for the California Condor, now an endangered species. These huge birds would fly along the coast and feed upon beached seals, dolphins, and whales. Indeed, this ecosystem once supported coyotes, bears, vultures, and a full spectrum of life. However, with the construction of a freeway and residences on the beach, this biodiversity has been lost. Increased population and conflicting human interests turn a beached mammal of this scale into a significant management issue. (Just be glad the authorities did not decide to do this!)

As illustrated by this case, the loss of natural ecosystem processes generate complicated public policy questions. Other examples include dams and flood control structures designed for a single purpose, but with unforseen side effects. There is now consensus that Matilija Dam should be decommissioned to begin to restore watershed function. And with pending new regulations, discussion has begun relating to impacts of urbanization to the health of the coastal ecosystem.