NOAA marine mammal scientist, Blair Mase (right), helps rescue a dolphin entangled in fishing gear in the Indian River Lagoon along the central east coast of Florida, Sept. 2009. Also pictured are stranding network partners from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute (HBOI) and Dolphin Conservation Field Station.
(Photo credit: With permission from HBOI)
Rich with 21 species of marine mammals, including nine types of dolphins, the Gulf of Mexico teems with marine life.
During NOAA’s response to the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill response last April, NOAA scientists fanned out along the Gulf Coast in boats, helicopters and on foot to understand how these creatures were being impacted and to rescue any in distress.
Blair Mase, a marine mammal specialist with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, was one of those scientists.
We recently sat down to talk with Mase, who decided long ago to dedicate her life to the study and protection of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.
Why did you become marine mammal scientist?
Wonderful question! I was fortunate to have had a “moment” when I knew what I wanted to do with my life. When I was 10, my family moved to a house by the ocean. Always the morning person, I would beachcomb early in the day. One morning, I saw a 15-foot whale stranded on the beach — I ended up staying with the whale and keeping it wet for three and a half hours until the stranding response team arrived.
After the whole experience was over I looked at my Mom and said, “I want to rescue whales.” And she said that she was sure I would. That was when I knew what I wanted to dedicate my life to, and I’ve been with NOAA for 18 years.
How were you involved in the federal-wide BP oil spill response?
During last year’s spill, NOAA wanted to be as prepared as possible to respond to marine mammals affected by the spill. My job was to coordinate with the Gulf state stranding organizations and federal agencies involved in spill response to respond to strandings; schedule aerial, shoreline and boat-based surveys; work with rehabilitation facilities on plans to receive live stranded animals; and make sure that response protocols for stranded, ill or injured marine mammals were in place.
Strandings occur when marine mammals swim or float into shore and become beached or stuck in shallow water. In most stranding cases, the cause of the stranding is unknown, but some causes include disease, harmful algal blooms, injuries from ship strikes, entanglements in fishing gear, pollution exposure, trauma, parasite infestation and starvation.
NOAA's Blair Mase is a marine mammal specialist with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service and a Southeast regional lead for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
(Photo credit: Courtesy of Blair Mase)
Dolphins seem to be getting a lot of attention since the spill. What do we know so far about how they have been impacted?
We are still learning about how dolphins have been impacted by the spill. We continue to collect data from marine mammal strandings and learn as much as possible about dolphin populations in the northern Gulf region. NOAA scientist and partner organizations are conducting numerous studies of the tissue samples collected from both dead and live animals to try to determine the potential impacts of the oil spill on marine mammals.
We read that there has been a recent increase in dead dolphin strandings in the northern Gulf this year. What might be causing this and is it linked to the oil spill?
We’re not sure yet. NOAA is working with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and the Gulf states to figure out what the link is. We hope to learn more from the results of rigorous tests we are conducting. [Read more here.]
Are you concerned about the long-term impacts to dolphins?
Absolutely. Although numerous species were observed swimming through and around the oil, it’s mostly bottlenose dolphins that have stranded. This is not surprising since they populate along the Gulf Coast and in the bayous, bays and estuaries.
There’s still a lot we don’t know. I’ve dedicated my career to the conservation of marine mammals, and it concerns me a great deal to think about the possible near- and long-term impacts of the oil spill, such as damage to their habitat or depletion of the animals on which they prey. But with careful study, we hope to learn more in coming months and years.
NOAA scientists have long suggested that dolphins are sentinels for human health. Do you have concerns that the recent increase in dolphin deaths in the Gulf could be a sign that this may mirror health problems for humans?
It’s possible that whatever is impacting the dolphins might also have the potential to impact us. So yes, I am concerned. My family and I live along the coast, and we enjoy everything it has to offer. I draw comfort knowing that I work for an organization that has so many dedicated scientists who truly care about conserving not only marine life, but also the entire ecosystem as well. There should be confidence in knowing that NOAA has some of our country’s top marine mammal scientists looking at how this spill may have impacted dolphins and their surrounding habitat — habitat that we as humans also rely on.
One final question: Do you have a favorite marine mammal species?
Actually, no — I have a true passion for the sea and all species that make it their home.
About the Marine Mammal Stranding Network
Mase serves as a Southeast regional lead for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, created in the early 1980s to provide a consistent framework in which to collect and compile data about marine mammals. The network is composed of volunteers based at academic institutions, state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations.
To learn more about the protection of marine mammals, visit the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service website. You can also learn more about the recent dolphin deaths in the Gulf and access historical and current stranding data by visiting NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources website.