Currently, marine mammal standing teams along the Atlantic seaboard are being kept busy by an unusually high rate of dolphin strandings. The standings have prompted federal officials to declare an Unusual Mortality Event (“UME”) for dolphins. As the federal government begins investigating this UME, they have suggested an early suspect might be morbillivirus, an air-borne illness that affects marine mammals. This would not be the first time morbillivirus struck dolphins hard. In 1987, dolphin mortalities also spiked dramatically. Dolphins were hit so hard in fact that by the end of the 1987-88 UME 742 dolphins were confirmed dead.
However, this UME has an added wrinkle for standing responders. The zeroing out of funds for the US Government funded John H. Prescott Grant has limited the ability of some stranding and rehab facilities to effectively respond to these events. While limited funding for stranding response is bad enough, the disservice done to marine mammals by the elimination of Prescott funds is worse than many may realize.
This past June, the Riverhead of Long Island, NY responded to a stranding of a Risso’s dolphin, “Roxanne” who was dehydrated and had stomach ulcers. No one wanted her to see her euthanized as she seemed just to need some interim care. Two months later, and after her daily intake of 75lbs of squid, she is weighing in at over 700 lbs and waiting to be released back to the wild. However, the Foundation does not have the $35,000 needed to hire the vessels and cranes for her to be transported back to sea.
Marine mammals are aesthetic treasures for ocean lovers to appreciate and preserve. Yet their value runs deeper, because of their service as sentinel species, providing us with an idea about the health of an environment we still know so little about. Because of their long life histories, they teach us about trends in ocean pollution, and water quality that the most sophisticated pieces of oceanographic equipment might miss. Rather than being able to learn and hopefully better respond to mass strandings in the future, elimination of Prescott dollars means that we may not learn from history, instead being doomed to repeat it in the future.
While everyone at WDC works diligently day in and day out to support conservation of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, there is always more that can be done, and there are ways you can help. Prescott funding is controlled by Congress, so if you are concerned about marine mammal organizations not being able to respond to and learn from future UMEs, or save the animals they respond to, contact your congressman and let them know that Prescott funds are important for ocean conservation. Let them know that investing in marine mammal research benefits overall ocean health, as well as human health. Let them know that investing in marine mammal research and conservation is investing in a better future for all of us.