By Stephanie Hughes, Vertebrate Ecology Lab
If marine mammals are deemed the “canary in the coal mine” for our oceans, how can we predict threats to oceans and human health if funds that support long-term monitoring of these sentinels are eliminated?
The importance of monitoring the health of marine mammals goes beyond our “good Samaritan” duties of saving the cute and cuddly. Rescue and recovery attempts don’t always result in a happy ending, even though we hope for the best outcome. Regardless, our efforts are never in vain, for even failed attempts present us with the opportunity to discover clues for how the animal lived, so we may (hopefully) reveal how and why it died. Responding to diseased, injured, distressed, and even deceased marine mammals is our gateway to unveiling what these animals, and even humans, may be up against as environmental conditions are in flux.
The Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Response Network operates through the Vertebrate Ecology Laboratory (VEL) at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (MLML) and is a participant of the National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. The VEL-MLML stranding network has been in operation for over 20 years under the direction of Dr. Jim Harvey, professor and interim director of MLML. At its infancy, VEL-MLML stranding response, in collaboration with other stranding response organizations such as The Marine Mammal Center and Long Marine Laboratory, was conducted voluntarily. Students, faculty, and members of the community would volunteer for rescuing, recovering, or collecting data on live and deceased stranded marine mammals. During the early years, equipment for stranding response was limited, thereby making the sample collection and storage to support long-term research difficult, though not impossible. Volunteers often lacked proper transportation, sampling equipment, and protective gear, and many were without formal training on data or sample collection. Despite these shortcomings, dedicated volunteers would drag hundreds of pounds of dead, beached marine mammal heads, tails, flippers, etc. (yes, without latex gloves) through miles of sand dunes, then would strap their prized possession on top of their ’78 Toyota pick up, tails and flippers flapping in the wind on Highway 1 as they returned to the lab. During the early 1990s, the VEL-MLML stranding network had many willing, committed, and dedicated volunteers (still does). What it didn’t have were sufficient funds to support the infrastructure necessary for rapid, large scale, and long-term stranding response.
Mass mortality events are not a new phenomenon, but if they increase in frequency, responding to events of this magnitude could be extremely difficult without sufficient funds, proper infrastructure, or trained personnel. Large scale unusual mortality events have occurred in our backyard; in 1998, an influx of hundreds of California sea lions washed ashore in central California, most were dead on arrival, and those that survived presented symptoms of bizarre nuerological behavior, such as head weaving, scratching, seizures, and coma (Gulland 2002). From 1999-2000, a surge of 104 stranded gray whales hit our coastline. Limited resources allowed for only 3 out of the 651 whales that stranded on the west coast that year to be examined in enough detail to determine cause of death during this mortality event (Gulland 2000).
Imagine coordinating a response effort of this magnitude without funds for: fuel for trucks to get to the site, fuel for the tractor to move the dead whale up the beach so you don’t lose it to the tide, sterile knives and sharpeners to collect the samples, baggies and cryovials for long term storage of your samples, freezers to store the samples, electricity to run the freezers for long term storage of samples, histology and pathology to determine cause of death, and maintenance of your trucks and tractors so you can make it back home. Countless hours of volunteer power are free as long as your phone tree is up to date so you can call the right people to duty in your time of crisis. Then, there is the aftermath: news reporters, journalists, and spectators will want to know why the crisis has occurred.
Thanks to NOAA’s Prescott funds, stranding responders and volunteers, after countless hours of lost sleep fearing a repeat of the scenario described above, could then take a sigh of relief knowing their efforts would be supported. The public could also sleep at night knowing the stranding network was on the case. The Marine Mammal Rescue Act was passed by Congress in 2000 as an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1973. Following this legislation, the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Program was established. Since 2001, the program budgeted close to 4 million dollars a year to support the operational costs, supplies, and infrastructure for eligible members of the stranding network, including the The Marine Mammal Center and VEL-MLML Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Response Network. We recover and treat injured or distressed marine mammals, collect data and samples from live and dead stranded marine mammals to investigate causes of death, determine sources of disease, and aid in emergency response during oil spills, mass mortality events, and whale entanglement response. Funds are also awarded to support scientific research involving stranded animals.
The VEL-MLML stranding network operates on NOAA Prescott funds, and has received 9 Prescott grant awards since the network began, including a large whale entanglement and stranding response grant. These funds have provided the network the means to coordinate rapid response to deceased pinnipeds, cetaceans, sea turtles, and entangled whales. Samples collected from stranded animals have been shipped to researchers throughout the country for scientific research or educational purposes. The stranding network also supported necropsy demonstrations to teach marine mammal health, physiology, and adaptations for the aquatic environment to both incoming graduate students to VEL and high school students through the Teacher Enhancement Program. Most of the skulls, skeletons, bones, and pelts on display for MLML’s Annual Open House were also collected through the stranding network.
NOAA Prescott funds supported both education and scientific research through the stranding network in its entirety. These funds allowed scientists, professionals, and educators to investigate marine mammal health, thereby providing insight for potential threats to oceans and human health (Bossart et al 2006) such as reproductive failure in California sea lions (Brodie et al 2006) or neurological disorders from domoic acid toxicosis (Gulland 2000, Lefebvre & Robertson 2010), Toxoplasma oocysts in sea otters (Miller et al 2002), Vibrio bacteria in harbor seals (my thesis), and contaminants (Greig et al 2011).
NOAA budgets have been cut for the upcoming year, and sources say the Prescott grant program may vanish forever. What does this mean for your local stranding networks? The VEL-MLML Marine Mammal Stranding Response Network may have no choice but to liquidate samples due to a broken condenser in our freezer, and network phones would go unanswered….unless you have about $34.6 million lying around. That is the amount needed to cover operating costs for the nation’s stranding networks for the next ten years, at least.
If you find yourself wondering: why are hundreds of dolphins dying off the coast of Texas? Are subsistence hunters going to come down with the same disease that has killed ringed seals and walruses? If the seals and sea lions are dying, what are they eating, and can I get sick if I eat the same thing? What can I do to help? Then donate to The Marine Mammal Center http://www.marinemammalcenter.org, or contact your local government representative to help devise a campaign to preserve NOAA Prescott stranding grant funds. Non-profit organizations such as Clean Ocean Action have started an e-petition http://www.cleanoceanaction.org/ to support the cause. Social media such as Twitter, or sharing on Facebook could also help raise awareness for the importance of these programs. Alternatively, you could also become a dedicated volunteer, but do it with permission, and latex gloves.
Pictured above is one of the many dedicated volunteers whose stories will remain to remind us that science, at its core, is to seek meaning for natural phenomenon. Regardless of what Congress decides, perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is, am I dedicated?
“Keep nature essential.” –Mike Graham