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Bottlenose dolphins © Christopher Swann

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Sperm whale (physeter macrocephalus) Gulf of California. The tail of a sperm whale.

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Helping the people who help

The unprecedented number of mass strandings of common dolphins on Cape Cod have made national and international news. Beginning in mid-January and continuing for more than five weeks, common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) have been stranding on Cape Cod Bay shores. According to IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research Team (MMRR), at least 179 animals stranded – of which 71 were alive. The team responded to four more live dolphins in Eastham yesterday, releasing all four – one with a satellite tag! Thanks to their efforts, nearly 75% of the animals stranded alive this season were successfully released. Six of the released animals were tagged with some going north to Maine while others have gone south or east, at least one venturing off the continental shelf east of New Jersey. These data support the idea that the animals are not sick and can be released successfully.

If they are not sick, then why do they strand in the first place is, of course, the million dollar question for which we have no solid answer. That certainly hasn’t stopped people from coming up with a multitude of reasons, some possible, some self-serving. We do know that Cape Cod, along with specific areas of New Zealand and Australia are hot-spots for mass live strandings of toothed whales (dolphins, pilot whales, etc). We know that the species that strand are typically pelagic animals, not normally found in shallow coastal waters. We know that Cape Cod, itself, is a “hook” in the ocean with significant tidal changes and shallow coastal flats. And we know that strandings here have been happening since before the Pilgrims arrived in 1620.

IFAW MMRR staff and volunteers bring a dolphin for release back into the sea. c. IFAW/L.Witzke

While there are cases where significant underwater noises, from seismic testing to military activity, have coincided with strandings, there is, however, no evidence of these recent Cape Cod events being caused by underwater noise. We do not have offshore energy developments in Cape Cod Bay causing noise, or electrical disruptions leading animals to shore. Cape Cod Bay is not significantly polluted making animals sick. For better or worse, this is a naturally occurring phenomenon. And for once, this is a case where we as humans are not the cause but rather the solution. Hundreds of volunteers overseen by IFAW’s and the New England Aquarium’s stranding networks have given day after day to move animals back to sea. Countless hours have been spent by people giving out blankets, pouring coffee, or manning phones in an effort to help. This is a situation where we need to think less about what humans did wrong and more about what we, collectively, do right. Whales and dolphins around the world need our support just as we need them to survive to maintain healthy oceans on which we all depend.

And this is why we ask you to write to your congressional representatives and urge them to support funding for the Prescott Grant program, slated to be eliminated in the 2013 federal budget. This loss of this grant program would have a huge impact only on IFAW’s MMRR team, but on all stranding networks around the country. Here’s a sample letter and a website to look up the contact info of your Congressional rep.

Dear [Insert Congressional rep name here],

As a concerned member of your constituency, I am writing today to ask for your consideration and support on the very important issue of federal funding for marine mammal stranding response.  In the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service proposed budget (currently put forth by the President for approval), a very small, but very important program has been cut.  The John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program has been eliminated from the FY 2013 federal budget.  This cut will affect stranding response organization along every coast of the United States.

As a volunteer for one of these organizations, I can attest to the need for continued federal support.  The national marine mammal stranding network is made up mainly of non-profit organizations that have very few staff and many dedicated volunteers.  These organizations help NOAA Fisheries to fulfill its legal mandate to respond to stranding under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.  Under Title IV of the Act, NOAA (under the Secretary of Commerce) is obliged to:

“collect and update, periodically, existing information on—(1) procedures and practices for—(A) rescuing and rehabilitating stranded marine mammals, including criteria used by stranding network participants, on a species-by-species basis, for determining at what point a marine mammal undergoing rescue and rehabilitation is returnable to the wild; and (B) collecting, preserving, labeling, and transporting marine mammal tissues for physical, chemical, and biological analyses; (2) appropriate scientific literature on marine mammal health, disease, and rehabilitation; (3) strandings, which the Secretary shall compile and analyze, by region, to monitor species, numbers, conditions, and causes of illnesses and deaths of stranded marine mammals; and (4) other life history and reference level data, including marine mammal tissue analyses, that would allow comparison of the causes of illness and deaths in stranded marine mammals with physical, chemical, and biological environmental parameters.”

Stranding networks provide the skilled and experienced personnel necessary to fulfill this legal mandate, which NOAA cannot do internally.  These organizations do their best to garner public donations and foundation grants to cover some of the costs of response to live and dead marine mammals, with only this one dedicated grant program providing a small portion of federal support for the work.  Unlike other federally mandated work which receives federal funding from a variety of agencies and sources, the Prescott Grant Program is the only federal funding dedicated to stranding response.  It is unrealistic to assume that these dedicated organizations can continue to fulfill an ever growing request for data from NOAA, without continued federal support.

The value of the work done by stranding networks goes beyond the animal welfare provided through response to live stranded animals.  Every animal, live and dead, is examined and key data and samples are collected.  These data are used by NOAA in developing sound, science-based policies to protect not only marine mammals, but also ocean ecosystems and human health.  Stranded marine mammals provide essential data in identifying emerging diseases and effects of biotoxins which can threaten commercially valuable fish and shellfish species as well as human health.
The Prescott Grant Program also serves to generate additional public funding for this work.  All grant recipients must provide matching funds totally one third of the federal funds requested.  Over the life of the grant program $36M in federal funding has in turn leveraged over $12M in public support for this important, federally mandated work.  I urge you to demand the re-instatement of funding for the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program.

Sincerely,

About George Berry

George is a member of WDC's Communications team and website coordinator.