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Dead whale along Turnagain Arm comes apart piece by piece, filling freezers and advancing science

Darryl Therchik uses an ulu knife to cut pieces of a humpback whale flipper on Wednesday along Turnagain Arm. Therchik is an Alaska Native from Toksook Bay. The Marine Mammal Protection Act allows Alaska Natives to harvest meat and muktuk from whales for subsistence purposes. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A humpback whale that was found dead on the shore of Turnagain Arm early Tuesday morning was being slowly taken apart Wednesday, soon after it was uncovered by the receding tide.

Volunteers dissect a humpback whale along Turnagain Arm. The young whale had been spotted stranded along nearby beaches at least twice earlier this week. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Researchers don’t know what killed the young whale, which had been spotted stranded on nearby beaches at least two times earlier in the week. The answers may lie hidden beneath a few feet of blubber, muscle and bone.

“Normally when we do a large whale necropsy, it’s easy because the whale is found belly up,” said veterinary pathologist Kathy Burek. When that happens, she can cut open the abdomen and access many of the internal organs that she needs to help her determine what happened.

This whale was found belly down.

Barbara Barger collects pieces of muktuk with the help of volunteers Sabrina Hock, left, and Bonnie Easley-Appleyard, on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 along Turnagain Arm. Barger, who is Alaska Native from Noatak, was helping her boyfriend William Tate collect the food. The Marine Mammal Protection Act allows Alaska Natives to harvest meat and muktuk from whales for subsistence purposes. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Helping the researchers on Wednesday were a steady stream of Alaska Natives, who have subsistence harvest rights under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. William Tate and his girlfriend Barbara Barger were the first to show up. Tate, who is from Kotzebue, and Barger, from Noatak, were hoping for some belly muktuk, but settled for tougher pieces from the side and back.

William Tate cuts pieces of muktuk from the humpback whale Wednesday. Tate, who is Alaska Native from Kotzebue, was planning on sharing the food with family. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

“It’s a delicacy for us,” said Tate. "Being away from home it’s hard to get muktuk. That’s why we are here.” The couple plans on giving some of the meat to family and friends.

UAA grad student Amy Klink, who was assisting researchers with the necropsy, was impressed by the speed at which Tate and others pulled apart the huge animal.

Volunteers and Alaska Natives dissect the whale along Turnagain Arm. The young whale had been spotted stranded along nearby beaches at least twice earlier this week. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

“They know exactly where to cut," she said. "They know exactly what kind of cut to make. It’s great to know that it’s not going to waste.”

Veterinary pathologist Kathy Burek, left, consults with biologist Carol Fairfield on how to collect a humpback whale head on Wednesday, May 1, 2019. Burek was leading a group of volunteers as they dissected the animal, and Fairfield was hoping to collect the head intact in order to conduct research into how whales hear. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Under federal law, non-Natives cannot harvest whale meat. Federal law enforcement officers were on hand Wednesday assisting with the effort. “One of our duties is to facilitate Alaska Native subsistence rights under the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” said NOAA law enforcement officer Kevin Clark.

As the tide began to rise Wednesday afternoon, covering the whale, people started to pack up their things. The necropsy, and subsistence harvest, will continue Thursday.

Alea Robinson carries a piece of humpback whale blubber to Bonnie Easley-Appleyard, who was extracting samples, on the shore of Turnagain Arm south of Girdwood on Wednesday. Researchers were conducting a necropsy of the young whale, hoping to learn why it died late Monday or early Tuesday. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled veterinary pathologist Kathy Burek’s name.

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