A 56-foot fin whale that washed ashore in northwest Washington died when it was struck by a ship, scientists said Wednesday.
"That was fairly unequivocal," said John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research, who led the team that examined the whale Tuesday. The carcass is on Lummi Indian tribal land that is closed to the public.
Fin whales, an endangered species, are at particular risk from ship strikes because of their size and feeding habits that bring them close to the surface, Calambokidis said.
The whale washed ashore Sunday at the Lummi reservation about 80 miles north of Seattle.
A necropsy found external and internal injuries on the animal's right side, Calambokidis said.
"There's a lot of hemorrhaging inside the body, a lot of blood in there," Merle Jefferson, director of the Lummi Indian Business Council's natural resources department, told the Bellingham Herald.
The male whale was 4 or 5 years old, Calambokidis said. Little is known about the species, and samples taken will offer information about the animal's overall condition and the biology of fin whales, he said.
The dead whale could have been struck in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, he said. "But it's more likely to have occurred off the Washington coast or the entrance to the strait."
In 2002, three fin whales were recovered in Puget Sound after ship strikes. Two came in draped across the vessels' bows.
Fins are the second-largest animal on Earth, he said — reaching lengths of nearly 90 feet. Blue whales are the largest at nearly 100 feet.
The Lummis plan to keep the bones and baleen -- bony mouth plates used to strain tiny edible creatures from the sea. The whale will be left where it is for about a year, until the flesh decays.
"It's going to be up to the cultural community what they're going to do with the bones," Jefferson said.
Before modern-day whaling, fin whales likely numbered in the hundreds of thousands, Calambokidis said. The worldwide population now is likely in the tens of thousands.
While protected from commercial whaling, Japan kills some fins for what it says is research and the meat is available in markets there.