Beach burial of cetaceans: implications for conservation, and public health and safety
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Every year hundreds of cetaceans strand on New Zealand beaches. Options for dealing with disposal of their carcasses are few, creating significant problems for the Department of Conservation (DOC). More often than not their carcasses are buried in beaches at or just above high water mark, near where the animals have stranded. The primary objective of this thesis is to determine the effects of cetacean burial on beach sediments, and evaluate potential health and safety risks associated with this practice. A secondary objective of this thesis is to appraise the appropriateness of one location DOC has repeatedly transported cetacean carcasses to and buried within beach sediments, Motutapu Island in Waitemata Harbour. The chemical effects of cetacean burial over a six-month period are reported for two sites at which animals were buried in 2008, Muriwai and Pakiri beaches; the biological effects of this burial are reported for one of these sites, Muriwai Beach, 12 months post burial. Intertidal faunal and floral inventories are provided for six sites around Motutapu Island, and these then compared and contrasted with inventories compiled from an additional 290 intertidal sites between Whangarei Heads and Tauranga Harbour, North Island East Coast, to appraise the relative uniqueness of intertidal species diversity around Motutapu Island. At both Muriwai and Pakiri beaches, nitrogen and phosphate concentrations in surface sands changed considerably following cetacean burial, although over six months the effect was localized and elevated concentrations of these two chemicals that could be attributed to a buried carcass did not extend more than 40 m from the site of whale burial. Deep-core profiles revealed nitrogen and phosphate concentrations at and in the immediate vicinity of cetacean burial approximately six months after burial to be markedly elevated to the level of the water table, but elevated concentrations attributable to the buried carcass were not observed greater than 25 m from the site of burial. Elevated concentrations of nitrogen and phosphates in beaches persist in surface sediments for at least six months post burial. Twelve months post cetacean burial no significant difference in species richness or abundance were apparent in intertidal communities extending along transects proximal to and some distance from the Muriwai Beach carcass; there is no evidence for any significant short-term (to 12 months) biological effects of cetacean burial in beaches. Of those shores on Motutapu Island accessible by earth-moving equipment and large vessels capable of dealing with and transporting large cetacean carcasses, Station Bay appeared to be the most appropriate site for whale burial. However its small size and relatively high biological value (fairly high species richness for comparable shores between Whangarei Heads and Tauranga) renders it an inappropriate long-term option for whale burial. Other shores on Motutapu Island host some of the highest species richness of all shores surveyed between Whangarei Heads and Tauranga Harbour, rendering them entirely inappropriate locations for burying cetaceans, over and above other variables that may influence disposal location identification (such as archaeological sites, dwellings and accessibility). Motutapu Island is not considered an appropriate location for cetacean burial within beaches. Alternative disposal strategies need to be explored for dealing with cetaceans that strand on Auckland east coast beaches. Although burial is the most convenient and most economical strategy to dispose of cetacean carcass, especially in mass stranding events or when cetaceans are of large size, and the biological effects of this practice are not considered significant (for the one whale that could be studied), persistent enrichment of beach sediments with organic matter could result in prolonged persistence of pathogens in beaches, causing unforeseen risks to human health and safety. Recommendations are made to minimize possible threats to public following burial of cetaceans in beaches, until the potential health risks of burial are more fully understood.