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Ottawa says it's in talks with museum to remove beached whales

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - It's no small matter to deal with a mammoth whale carcass, a sad cleanup job that seaside officials around the world have approached with varying success.

Turns out using 20 cases of dynamite to blow the thing up isn't the best idea. Proof of this was famously recorded in Florence, Ore., in 1970. About 75 bystanders watching half a kilometre away had to flee from raining chunks of sperm whale blubber, including one that flattened a car.

What are better options?

It's a question provincial and federal officials are now discussing to help small towns on Newfoundland's west coast deal with the rotting remains of two blue whales near Trout River and Rocky Harbour.

Federal Fisheries Minister Gail Shea posted on Twitter late Wednesday that Ottawa is working with a Canadian museum on an agreement to take ownership of the remains of the beached whales.

Shea said the deal with the undisclosed institution will benefit the affected communities "and ensure these magnificent whales contribute to the education of museum visitors."

Shea said federal Fisheries staff are on site to limit any public safety risks until the whales are removed. No other details were offered.

A spokeswoman for Shea declined to say which museum the government was working with, adding that more information will be available Thursday. Sophie Doucet said in an email that it's expected to be a couple of days before the whales are removed.

The whales were among nine that died trapped in thick sea ice earlier this spring, said Jack Lawson, a researcher with the federal Fisheries Department. A third whale that washed ashore has since drifted away from Bakers Brook off the coast of Gros Morne National Park, he said.

A mammal that size could be dangerous for mariners if towed to sea and it's too big and blubbery to burn. Beached whales in other parts of the world have been buried on site, cut up or loaded on to flatbed trucks and hauled to landfills.

In Trout River, town officials have appealed for help to remove a stinking, 26-metre long carcass sitting near waterfront businesses and a restaurant.

Lawson had said Tuesday that the whale is above the high water mark and is the province's responsibility.

Vanessa Colman-Sadd, a spokeswoman for Service NL, said Wednesday the province was in talks with federal partners on how to handle what she called a "unique situation."

"Discussions are ongoing to determine the best course of action."

Lawson has downplayed concerns that the bloating whales could explode as methane gas builds internally.

He believes it's more likely gases will escape as the whales' skin breaks down, deflating like an old balloon.

Local officials want the whales removed, and fast. They've raised concerns about potential health hazards and a powerful stench that could affect the crucial summer season in one of the province's prime tourism regions.

Sean Todd, director of Allied Whale, the College of the Atlantic's marine mammal research group in Bar Harbor, Maine, said Newfoundland has a rare chance to preserve an intact skeleton. The right leadership could mean a lasting tribute to a majestic and mysterious creature along with scientific contributions, he added.

"In the best cases, I've seen communities actually take on the dismantling of the carcass and then preserving the bones so that eventually they can put money together to create an exhibit," Todd said. "That seems to be the best possible solution."

Northwestern Atlantic blue whales are considered the largest animals on Earth. They can reach lengths of almost 30 metres or two city buses and weigh up to 180 tonnes, says the federal Fisheries website. The species is listed as endangered with a population estimated at just 250 before the nine known deaths.

The whales are actually a mottled blend of light and blue grey and are believed to live between 70 and 80 years.

"It's a great opportunity for us to understand more about the ocean," said Todd, who spent 10 years working with Memorial University of Newfoundland's Whale Research Group.

"There's an opportunity there to cut this animal up and preserve it for future generations. So I would encourage Newfoundland to think about how to do that."

Follow @suebailey on Twitter.

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