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Importance and Suspected Causes of Stranding Events
Marine mammal strandings are non-reoccurring events that provide scientists and resource managers with invaluable data and insights into the life history of individual animals, and help to identify and often mitigate threats to marine mammal stocks. See http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/
There appears to be no known definitive reason that marine mammals wash ashore or beach themselves. Theories include that single animals often wash ashore when sick or injured, or at times when they are simply old and dying of natural causes. Mother/calf pairs may also strand for similar reasons or perhaps at times when one or the other is compromised and the maternal instincts too strong to break. These same strong social bonds may also help induce mass stranding events when entire groups of marine mammals follow ‘alpha’ leaders to shore. While such ‘alpha’ leaders may help lead them to find food and safely navigate and migrate the oceans expanse, they may also serve to their detriment if illness or injury causes them to beach or strand themselves. Strandings have also been known to take place when their navigational abilities are impaired either due to environmental or anthropogenic stressors. Such stressors may include harmful algal blooms, oil spills, underwater explosions, or unusual sonar testing that impairs the ability of cetaceans to “see with sound” and thereby manage their environment.
Marine Mammal Stranding Response
The Harbor Branch Marine Mammal Research and Conservation (MMRC) Program maintains a 365/24/7 emergency response capability. Upon notification, MMRC First Responders deploy necessary assets and coordinate resources needed to rescue and transport sick or injured marine mammals to rehabilitative care facilities for evaluation. Deceased animals are transported to Harbor Branch’s MMRC Necropsy Laboratory where detailed pathobiological examinations can be performed and a cause of death determined.
Marine Mammal Rescue Program Summary
Established in 1998, the MMRC Rescue Program was developed in response to an increasing number of stranding events in a vital region of Florida’s central east coast that lacked the resources and staff needed to respond to and/or treat sick or injured marine mammals.
During the past decade, MMRC’s dedicated team of veterinarians, animal care managers, and a host of specialists and volunteers have responded to more than 250 regional stranding events involving more than 300 individual whales and dolphins, and even three Arctic seals that found their way to Florida waters in 2007.
Due to the extensive expertise and resources developed by MMRC staff, Harbor Branch is often asked to intervene and aid in special circumstances such as the recovery of 8 dolphins washed out to sea following Hurricane Katrina, or when dolphins must be rescued from the wild when disease or entanglements threaten their lives. This involves locating, rescuing, and treating marine mammals in open-water, and then releasing them to the wild to monitored via radio or satellite telemetry.
Goals and Mandates
MMRC’s mandates for marine mammal research and conservation being conducted at Harbor Branch are to:
- Collect, analyze, and archive scientific data regarding marine mammal populations that inhabit, utilize, or migrate in in Florida waters
- Provide care and assistance to sick or injured marine mammals
- Distribute information to the scientific community, federal, state, and local government agencies, educational institutions, and to the public for the purpose of protecting and preserving wild marine mammal stocks
- Individually identify wild dolphins through a photographic identification program
- Advance the research technology associated with tracking, monitoring, and categorizing whales and develop methods of early-warning detection systems and advance notification that will help prevent accidental boat strikes in state waters
- Construct and maintain a teaching marine mammal hospital
- Train veterinary students in the rescue, medical and rehabilitation treatment, and release and post-release monitoring of stranded whales
- Conduct scientific research through genetic, telemetry, and bioacoustical research
Experience and Capabilities
Harbor Branch operates as a marine mammal stranding responder under a Letter of Authorization (LOA) issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). MMRC’s response area covers Indian River county on the central east coast of Florida, from Sebastian Inlet (27°51'39.06"N/ 80°26'51.30"W) to Fort Pierce Inlet (27°28'18.88"N/ 80° 17'23.58"W), in both the IRL and Atlantic Ocean. Expanded coverage is provided when requested by the NMFS and other stranding response participants.
MMRC has responded to hundreds of stranding incidents involving more than seven cetacean species (Kogia breviceps, Kogia simus, Mesoplodon europaeus, Peponocephala electra, Stenella clymene, Steno bredanensis, and Tursiops truncatus) and two species of Arctic pinnipeds: the Bearded Seal (Erignathus barbatus) and the Hooded Seal (Cystophora cristata).
Additionally, post-graduate positions have provided a valuable learning platform for these professionals to gain important experience in preparing themselves for future careers in the field of marine mammal care and conservation, and greatly enhance our staff effectiveness as they provide full support roles from beginning to end throughout every marine mammal stranding event. The program also depends on a sizable number of trained and dependable volunteers to assist in all aspects of our marine mammal-stranding response program.
Marine Mammals Ashore: A Field Guide for Strandings by J.R. Geraci and V.J. Lounsbury provides additional references and has provided countless numbers of marine mammal rehabilitators and scientists around the world with information vital to help manage successful response, rehabilitation, and release of marine mammals. This reference book includes information on natural and human-related mortality, zoonoses and public health issues, network organization and public education, and animal release and monitoring, as well as new and updated protocols for specimen and data collection and responding to unusual mortality events. The book's tough, water-resistant paper, vinyl cover, and spiral binding make it a sturdy companion in the field.
Marine Mammal Protection Act
Marine Mammals Ashore: A Field Guide for Strandings
Southeast Fisheries Science Center's Marine Mammal Stranding website
Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events
FAQs about Marine Mammal Strandings
Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program
Report a Stranded Marine Mammals
The quicker the response, the better chances of survival are for Code 1 animals that wash ashore. Further, the quicker response to deceased animals, the more valuable data can be retrieved and the better chances a true cause of death can be determined. Nonetheless, valuable data can also be derived from a mummified corpse and collectively aids in making decisions on how best to protect and manage marine mammal stocks.
The following are codes used to classify the condition of stranded marine mammals:
Code 1 – Live Animal
Code 2 – Fresh Dead
Code 3 – Moderate Decomposition
Code 4 – Advanced Decomposition
Code 5 – Mummified Remains
Equipment and Resources
Marine Mammal Ambulance and Transport Systems
Marine Mammal Rescue and Recovery Truck
Necropsy Field Station Trailer
ATV First Responder Beach Unit
2 Sea Doo – Search and Rescue PWC’s
36’ Marine Laboratory and Telemetry Boat
28’ Marine Mammal Rescue Boat
22’ Marine Mammal Search and Recovery Boat
22’ Marine Mammal Observation and Telemetry Boat
19’ Marine Mammal Research and Photo-ID Vessel
To Report a Marine Mammal Stranding Event Please Call 1-888-404-FWCC