A Case Study of Strandings and their Outcome

United States National and Regional Policies in Regards to
Cetacean Strandings
© Do not cite without permission
Jillian L. McCarty
Coastal Policy
Fall 2003
Dr. Steffen Schmidt
Aristotle first documented cetacean mass strandings over 2000 years ago.
Unfortunately to this day we still do not know why these anomalies all occur. There are a
few ways strandings can occur: single strandings, mass strandings, and live or dead
strandings. Historically, the distinction between live and dead strandings has been
difficult to make since many cases are discovered at a later date rather than being
observed as they occur. In recent years we have been more competent in terms of
monitoring and responding to such events. Also it should be noted that while all marine
mammals strand individually or in pairs, only the cetaceans strand in significant groups.
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These groups are usually made up of one species, but there has occasionally been a mixed
species stranding (Brown et al., 1998). Actually only 10 species of cetaceans regularly
mass strand and then there are another 10 species that are occasionally known to strand.
In addition the majority of mass strandings occur in the Odontocete (the toothed whale)
species (NMML, 2003).
With single strandings it is usually illness or injury that causes an animal to
strand. There have been many proposed reasons for why mass strandings occur, but no
one can conclusively understand what makes the animals all strand together. Additionally
the number of strandings of all types has increased in recent years (Wells et al., 1999).
For this reason it is important that we have adequate laws and policies intact in the United
States to properly handle and treat animals in these situations.
Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972
The creation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972 was the
first time US government became actively involved in the management and protection of
marine mammals. It has since been reauthorized in 1994. The act established a
moratorium on the “take” of marine mammals in US waters. The moratorium also
prevented US citizens from taking marine mammals on the high seas, and banned the
importation of marine mammal products into the US. (Note: “take” is defined as “to
harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine
mammal.”) (NOAA Fisheries, 2003). Of course there was an allowance for certain
exceptions to the moratorium. These exemptions included the following:
1. Indians, Aleuts or Eskimos in coastal Alaska were allowed to take marine
mammals if their takes were subsistence or the selling of handicrafts. They were
permitted to take walrus, seals and bowhead whales.
2. After issuance of special permits marine mammals could be imported for
scientific research and/or education and public display.
3. Incidental take was allowed in conjunction with commercial fisheries such as
long-line, purse seine and gillnet.
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Additional amendments have been made over the years. In 1981 an amendment
allowed for incidental take of non-depleted marine mammals associated with those
involved in offshore oil exploration. Then in 1986 another amendment gave more
exemptions to commercial fisherman (Thomas, 1998). All these amendments seem to
contradict the protection act and so called moratorium, in my opinion. It was not until the
late eighties that strandings were even addressed by MMPA.
Finally in 1989 an amendment came about to benefit marine mammals. This
amendment authorized the capture of sick, orphaned or injured marine mammals for
importation to captive facilities for treatment and rehabilitation. Even though MMPA did
not technically recognize it until this amendment, the US Marine Mammal Stranding
Network was first established as a volunteer network after a workshop in Georgia in 1977
(MML, 2003).
Officially the MMPA gave two federal agencies the management responsibility
for marine mammals. The US Fish & Wildlife Service under the direction of the
Secretary of the Interior were designated accountable for manatees, dugongs, sea otters,
walrus and polar bears. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is a
division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under
the direction of the Secretary of Commerce, was elected to manage cetaceans, seals and
sea lions (Thomas, 1998). It is the latter of the two agencies that this paper will address in
terms of its role in cetacean strandings.
NMFS and the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program
In the end of the 1980’s the official Marine Mammal Health and Stranding
Response Program (MMHSRP) came into being. The program was created as a result of
the increasing concern about marine mammals strandings. The MMHSRP set forth
certain goals at the onset (NMFS(a), 2003), which were as follows:
1. To facilitate collection and dissemination of data
2. To assess health trends in marine mammals
3. To correlate health with available data on physical, chemical and biological
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4. To coordinate effective responses to unusual mortality events
It was not until the 1992 amendment to MMPA that this program was made
official. This became title IV of MMPA. That was when the NMFS was formally
designated to manage the activities of the program. MMHSRP combines aspects of
marine mammal biology, scientific investigations and policy. The program is composed
of five major parts and they are: responses/investigations of mortality events,
biomonitoring, tissue/serum banking, analytical quality assurance and stranding
The response/investigations of mortality events portion of the program was
derived from a Working Group NMFS had established in response to a major die off of
dolphins in 1987-88. This group meets annually to discuss issues related to marine
mammal mortality and to try to help develop better procedures for responses and
investigations (NMFS(a), 2003). The biomonitoring is done to collaborate with a
worldwide effort to help assess the heath and contaminant loads of marine mammals.
Another goal is to determine the anthropogenic impacts on marine mammals, as well as
marine food chains and overall health of ecosystems. Part of this is that NMFS provides
tissue and serum samples from stranded and bycatch animals to be analyzed and
monitored. The analytical quality assurance division was designed to guarantee that the
chemical analyses of marine mammal tissue samples are accurate. In essence MMHSRP
serves as a Center for Disease Control (CDC) of marine mammals.
The stranding networks, which are a major focus of this paper, have been
organized into six regions along the coastlines of the nation (Berta & Sumich, 1999).
NMFS oversees this network with a national coordinator and regional coordinators
through the regional NMFS offices. The regional stranding coordinators facilitate
response efforts and organize communications among the network volunteers,
government agencies and scientists. These offices can are represented in the map below
with the exception of the Pacific Islands Regional Office in Hawaii.
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map from: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/prot_res/overview/regional_map.html
Each regional office monitors the activities of their local stranding networks.
These local networks are all volunteer based and have been established in all coastal
states. Each stranding network holds a Letter of Authority (LOA) from their regional
NMFS office, which authorizes them to respond to strandings and rehabilitate animals.
The paper will now review how each of the six regional offices of NMFS as well as some
of associated the regional stranding networks manage marine mammal stranding response
and rehabilitation.
Alaska Region
The Alaska Region Office of NMFS manages the Alaska Marine Mammal
Stranding network. The regional offices are based out of Anchorage and Juneau. In
Alaska’s waters alone there are strandings of about 30 species of marine mammals each
year. The key goal of this network is to “facilitate investigation of these strandings and to
compile scientific data or to gather specimen material” (NMFS (b), 2003). Between 1998
and 7/12/2003, a total of 543 stranding events have been reported to the Alaska Marine
Mammal Stranding Network Coordinator, for a total of approximately 798 animals
(Sternfield, 2003).
The Alaska SeaLife Center (ASLC) in Seward is a non-profit marine science
center dedicated to research, rehabilitation and education. This is the only permanent
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stranding facility in the state. It is authorized by a Letter of Authorization from NMFS
and also holds a permit from USFWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to respond to
marine mammal and bird strandings from the entire gulf coast of Alaska. The fact that
they operate as a stranding center within a research center enables the staff, including
veterinarians to learn a great deal about marine mammals during the rehabilitation
process. It is the policy of the Alaska SeaLife Center to make every reasonable effort to
rehabilitate and release as many rescued animals as possible. Their primary goal is to
return healthy fully rehabilitated animals back to the wild (ASLC, 2003).
Pacific Islands Region
The Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center division of NMFS is located in
Honolulu, HI. In terms of marine mammals the main objective of this office is to recover
and maintain Hawaiian monk seal populations (NMFS (c), 2003). The marine mammal
stranding network is a fairly new addition in this area. According to the US Coast Guard
(2003) NMFS maintains its own tanks that can be used to rehabilitate oiled sea turtles or
small marine mammals. They are capable of rehabilitating about 6 monk seals, 6 turtles
and one dolphin or small whale. The tanks are located at Kewalo Basin, Oahu. NMFS
also has trained personnel that could undertake limited rehabilitation efforts.
They are assisted in rescue and rehabilitation by the Hawaiian Islands Stranding
Response Group. This is the only group of its kind in Hawaii. The group is comprised of
about 75 people is made up of a few marine mammal experts, trained animal handlers,
researchers and number are average people who just want to help the animals (Aguiar,
All of the members of the group are volunteers and they truly operate on a
shoestring. The group was just incorporated last year as a nonprofit and received their
LOA from NMFS, which makes them eligible for some federal assistance. However
members have had to fund rescues outright themselves. They have no facility of their
own for rehabilitation and typically use pools set up on a Marine Corps base in Kane’ohe.
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Northwest Region
This region is administered by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center. This
office studies living marine resources and their habitats in the Northeast Pacific Ocean,
primarily off the coasts of Washington and Oregon. However the stranding network in
Oregon still seems to be getting established.
In Oregon the Hatfield Science Center of Oregon State University has just
developed the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network and appointed a coordinator
this year. The new coordinator is organizing a statewide network of volunteers to help
respond to stranded animals. Part of the focus of this new program will also be to
document strandings and related information in coordination with the other networks,
government agencies and universities (OSU, 2003). The facilities at Oregon Coast
Aquarium are used for rehabilitation efforts at the present time.
In Washington it is The Whale Museum, in conjunction with the whale hotline
that has supported mammal stranding response in the San Juan Islands area since 1981.
Since its inception, Museum personnel have held the federal permits for investigating
both live and dead stranded marine mammals, collecting specimens, and maintaining San
Juan County records for the national archives (The Whale Museum, 2003).
In 1982, The Whale Museum established a partnership with Wolf Hollow
Wildlife Rehabilitation Center for live-stranding response and rehabilitation. Since 1987,
the two organizations have held regular stranding response training workshops in order to
maintain a network of volunteers in the county who assist with "first response" to
strandings on more remote islands. Currently, the San Juan County Marine Mammal
Stranding Network is the only fully coordinated community network in the U.S. Pacific
Northwest, working with the only rehabilitation center in Washington State that is
authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service to care for injured marine mammals.
Over the last three years, this network has responded to an average of 85 strandings per
year. Funding for the San Juan County Marine Mammal Stranding Network has come
primarily from The Whale Museum's general operating budget and occasional
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Southwest Region
The Southwest Region office of NMFS is responsible solely for the state of
California, now that the Pacific Islands office governs Hawaii (since April of 2003). In
California the most well known member of the Southwest Marine Mammal Stranding is
The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC). TMMC is a nonprofit organization relying upon
membership, grants, contributions and bequests to keep it running. The hold a letter of
authorization from the NMFS and a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
authorizing us to rescue, rehabilitate, and release marine mammals. Since 1975, over
9,000 animals have been rescued and treated at their hospital facility (TMMC, 2003). The
organization sponsors science and education programs that provide vital information on
sick and injured patients, as well as general education about marine mammals. Their
mission is “to use our awareness, compassion and intelligence to foster marine mammal
survival and the conservation of their habitat.”
Another member of the Southwest Regional Marine Mammal Network that
responds to live strandings is SeaWorld. Even though Sea World is very much a for profit
organization, it has a research institute known as Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute that
is nonprofit (SeaWorld, 2002). It is mainly this division of SeaWorld that carries out
rescue and rehabilitation efforts.
Other members of the Southwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network only
respond in the event of dead cetacean strandings. These include the California Academy
of Marine Sciences, Moss Landing Marine Labs and Long Marine Labs. The specimens
are then used for the biomonitoring and tissue banks portions of the MMHSRP. It is
possible that they may also be used for other research or display purposes by these
Southeast Region
The Southeast Fisheries Science Center (SEFSC) is responsible for marine
mammal responses in the southeast region of the United States including the coastline
from North Carolina to Texas and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as well. The
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SEFSC Marine Mammal group is divided in two groups of work: Health & Stranding
Response and Assessment (SEFSC, 2003).
Clearly the Health and Stranding Response group is what will be addressed here.
This group is responsible for coordinating stranding events, monitoring stranding rates,
monitoring human caused mortalities, maintaining a stranding data base for the southeast
region, and conducting investigations to determine the cause of unusual stranding events
including mass strandings and mass mortalities. The Southeast seems to have the most
well planned program for marine mammal strandings. They also have seven different
offices with NMFS stranding area network representatives.
Dr. Dan Odell is the coordinator of the Southeastern U.S. Marine Mammal
Stranding Network, which maintains the Marine Mammal Stranding database for the
region. Dr. Odell works out SeaWorld of Florida, the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research
Institute, which also responds to strandings in Florida. However, there are numerous
groups that hold LOA’s in the Southeast Regions and quite a few in Florida itself. Only
two will be reviewed here to prevent being too repetitive.
One of the most prominent groups that act as part of the Southeast Stranding
Network is the Mote Marine Lab. Mote staff first began responding to strandings in
1969. The Lab did not formally begin a Marine Mammal Stranding Investigation
Program until 1983. Since its inception the program has coordinated and investigated
about 300 cetacean stranding events along the west central coast of Florida (MML,
2003). The program holds an LOA from NMFS and responds to both live and dead
In the case of live strandings the staff and volunteers of Lab’s Dolphin and Whale
Hospital work with their Strandings Investigations Program as paramedics. The ill or
injured animals receive appropriate first aid and medical care at the stranding site. Next
the animals are brought back to Mote’s Dolphin and Whale Hospital, where there are a
few pools available for the rehabilitation process. The main goal of the program is
reintroduction to the wild after rehab.
Another group involved with the Southeast Stranding network is the Texas
Marine Mammal Stranding Network (TMMSN). This network was founded in 1980 and
is a nonprofit volunteer-based organization dedicated to the understanding and
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conservation of marine mammals. The group is comprised of volunteers in six regions
along the Texas that coast respond immediately when a stranding is reported. Again
TMMSN holds the appropriate LOA from NMFS and responds to live and dead
strandings. After the group responds to a stranding all efforts are made to bring the
animal back to the rehabilitation facilities. There are times when this is not possible. An
animal could be too large to transport or even too stressed and violent to be loaded.
When it comes to a mass stranding, the staff make an on site determination of the correct
course of action for the animals best interest (TMMSN, 2002).
On the whole both the groups discussed, as well as the other members of the Southeast
Region Stranding Network, seem to be very well designed and very efficient at
responding to cetacean stranding events.
Northeast Region
The NMFS Northeast region office in Massachusetts oversees the Northeast
Region Marine Mammal Stranding Network. This network is made up of many different
groups and agencies in all the coastal states of the northeast, from Maine to Virginia. This
is probably the second most organized and effective region in terms of response to
strandingd and rehabilitation. One such group is the New England Aquarium in Boston,
given that they hold and LOA from NMFS. In turn the aquarium authorizes other
stranding and rehabilitation organizations or individuals to act on their behalf, which
results in a network that provides thorough coverage of the region. Since the inception of
our Rescue and Rehabilitation Program in 1968, the New England Aquarium has
responded to over 4,000 strandings of marine mammals and sea turtles.
The Cape Cod Stranding Network is part of the network that has been created by
the New England Aquarium to respond to strandings. This network is comprised of a
several marine mammal response groups in the Cape Cod region. This vicinity is known
to be one of the major “hot spots” for marine mammal stranding in the world (Fried,
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Once a network member responds to a live stranding, the animals are then
transported to the New England Aquarium. Here they have their state of the art Aquarium
Medical Center, which opened in1997. It is an actual working hospital and it is one of the
few aquatic medical centers in the United States. The veterinary staff provides medical
care to both the Aquarium's collection and to marine mammals and sea turtles found
stranded or injured by the network (New England Aquarium, 2003).
Another key player in the Northeast Marine Mammal Stranding Network is the
National Aquarium in Baltimore via the Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP).
MARP has successfully rescued, treated, and returned seals, dolphins, porpoises, pilot
whales, pygmy sperm whales, sea turtles, and a manatee to their natural habitats – led by
only a handful of paid staff and a network of highly-trained volunteers. MARP volunteers
dedicated 5,000 hours just last year, and more than 80,000 in the 12 years since MARP’s
inception (National Aquarium, 2003).
Release Criteria
There are various criteria that must be considered before a marine mammal may
be released back into its native habitat after rehabilitation. Dolphins and whales are not
born with an instinctive ability to catch fish and survive in the ocean. These skills must
be learned from the mothers and other group members. If an animal is too young when it
strands they have not learned the life skills needed to survive, and cannot be released.
Also, animals that have permanent injures, ongoing health problems, or other factors that
limit their survival chances, or that may pose a health threat to wild populations may not
be released. In these cases, the local stranding networks and the National Marine
Fisheries Service will work hard to find the best home possible for the animal, whether
it's a research facility or marine park.
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A Case Study of Strandings and their Outcome
Hawaiian Islands: 1957-1988
One project outlining stranding events and their outcome was covered in Mazzuca
et al., 1999. The researchers examined data gathered in cetacean strandings in the
Hawaiian Islands that spanned 1957 through 1998 to determine age (by body length
analysis) location, frequency and seasonal distribution of stranding occurrences. Nine
mass stranding events, involving 4 species that totaled 96 animals were identified and
analyzed. Results indicated that a large majority, (95%), of the animals stranding were
live odontocete whales. Although human intervention occurred at all of the events, 80%
of the stranded animals died. Nearly 2/3 of the stranding events occurred in the summer
and took place most often on the leeward side of the Island. The largest of the events
took place on the Island of Maui and the second largest occurred on Kauai. The coastal
configuration at both sites included shallow water and fringing reefs and relatively high
magnetic resonance related to the volcanic activity in the area. Bottom topography at the
sites showed a gradual slope and/or a sandy bottom between the reef and shoreline. Body
length data, available for 53 of the 96 animals, indicated that nearly 94% of the stranded
animals were adults. An examination of species indicated that the short finned pilot
whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) occurred with the greatest frequency having a
mean average of 14 animals per event at five of the nine strandings. Pigmy Killer
Whales (Steno bredanesis) and Pigmy Sperm Whales (Kogia breviceps) were the second
most frequent, each showing up in two of the nine strandings examined. The researchers
concluded that certain coastal configurations, bottom topography, and magnetic
resonance might play a large role in the cause and location of mass strandings.
In all the United States has come along way in helping stranded cetaceans since
the enactment of MMPA. With the numbers of strandings on the rise, the US needs to
continue to improve on its policies and programs in regards to marine mammals. In a the
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five year period from 1994 through 1998 NMFS states that there were 5,901 cetaceans
strandings. The numbers were also broken down by region for the five year period:
Southeast Region–3,683 cetaceans
Northeast Region–1,013 cetaceans
Southwest Region– 624 cetaceans
Northwest Region– 119 cetaceans
Alaska Region– 462 cetaceans
Clearly the Southeast region has the most stranding events, in reality more than
half of the cetacean stranding events in the entire nation occur there. The result of such a
massive number of strandings has been the development a well organized and effective
marine mammal stranding network. The other regions fall behind almost in correlation
with number of strandings in their areas. The Northeast actually does a rather effective
job, but the LOA holders in that region are sub-authorizing too many different groups.
That creates a problem for NMFS in terms of monitoring the programs. They just need to
do a bit of streamlining there.
The other regions just don’t have enough groups responding to live strandings
and they also lack an adequate amount of facilities to rehabilitate. Of course funding is
always an issue. However, NMFS has made more grants available in the past couple of
years to rescue and rehabilitation operations, especially new ones. The regional
coordinators need to take advantage of such funds to the fullest extent.
Just because certain regions have less stranding events doesn’t mean that their
networks can’t be as effective as one in a more active area. Hopefully the other regions
will take advice form the Southeast in order to progress. This will contribute to better
regional networks and overall the program will be enhanced nationally.
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References Cited
Aguiar, E. 2003. Saving whales not just slogan. The Honolulu Adviser.
ASLC. 2003 The Alaska Sea Life Center. About Rehabilitation:
Berta, A. & J. Sumich. 1999. Marine Mammals: Evolutionary Biology pp. 440-441.
Academic Press, San Diego, CA.
Brown, V., Smith, G. & Weldon, B. 1998. Mass Strandings & Die-off Events of
Cetaceans: Why? A paper for MSCI 375 Biology of Marine Mammals. Coastal Carolina
University: http://www.kingfish.coastal.edu/marine/375/stranding.html
Fried, S. 2000. Gulf groups wade in to help stranded marine mammals. The Gulf of
Maine Times, Vol. 4, No. 1: http://www.gulfofmaine.org/times/spring2000/headline.html
Mazzuca, L. Atkinson, S. Keating, B. Nitta, E. 1999. Cetacean mass strandings in the
Hawaiian Archipelago, 1957-1998. Aquatic Mammals Vol. 25.2. pages 105-114.
MML. 2003. Animal Handler Handbook. Mote Marine Laboratory’s Dolphin and Whale
Hospital and Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital.
National Aquarium. 2003. Marine Animal Rescue Program – MARP:
New England Aquarium. 2003. Aquarium Medical Center:
NMFS(a). 2003. Office of protected resources. The Marine Mammal Health and
Stranding Response Program:
NMFS (b). 2003. Alaska Region Office. The Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding
Network: http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/protectedresources/whales/strandings.htm
NMFS (c). 2003. The Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. Protected Speciesmission: http://www.pifsc.noaa.gov/psi/index.html
NMML (National Marine Mammal Laboratory). 2003 Cetacea Strandings:
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NOAA Fisheries. 2003. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972:
OSU. 2003. Oregon State University Research Office Newsletter – Update:
SeaWorld. 2002. Rehabilitated Animals:
SEFSC. 2003. Marine Mammal Strandings-Mammal Program:
Sternfield, M. 2003. 1998-2002 Alaska Region Marine Mammal Stranding Summary.
Thomas, J. 1998. Marine Mammalogy ( Zoology 416G) Class Notes. Laboratory of
Sensory Biology. Western Illinois University.
TMMC. 2003. About Us-Our Mission:
TMMSN. 2002. Rescue-Rehabilitation-Release:
The Whale Museum. 2003. Marine Mammal Stranding Network: http://www.whalemuseum.org/programs/mmsn.html
USCG. 2003. Section 3500-WildlifeRecovery:
Wells et al. 1999. Long Distance Offshore Movements of Bottlenose Dolphins. Marine
Mammal Science 15 (4): 1098-1114.
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