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Stranded Atlantic white sided dolphins being assessed by responders from IFAW and NEAQ

Helping marine life in distress

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What is a stranding?
What is a stranding?
Stranded marine mammals and turtles provide clues about ocean health
How NOAA responds to marine life in distress
NOAA and partners work together to solve stranding mysteries
How NOAA investigates mass strandings
When many animals strand simultaneously, NOAA & partners investigate
What to do if you see marine life in distress

Imagine you’re on a beach vacation in Florida. On a hot day you walk the beach, looking for seashells. All of a sudden, you see something big lying on the beach — it’s a dolphin, and it seems to be struggling. Would you know what to do?

Stranded marine mammals and turtles sometimes come ashore, dead or alive. They are often sick, injured, disoriented, or starving. They could have been exposed to pollution or a harmful algal bloom, entangled in fishing gear or marine debris, struck by a vessel or infected by a disease or parasite.

NOAA and a network of partners work together to respond to stranded marine wildlife on all coasts. The experts assess what may have led an animal to strand itself. Studying the reasons wildlife come ashore provides clues about ocean conditions and the health of coastal ecosystems.

When a dead marine mammal or sea turtle washes ashore, researchers perform a necropsy--an animal autopsy. Necropsies provide a valuable way to gain information about the life history of marine life, providing data that would be difficult to obtain from living wild populations. A necropsy can tell researchers what an animal ate, if it was or had previously been pregnant, and how old it was when it died. Samples from live stranded animals can also provide important information that rehabilitators and veterinarians can use to determine the best course of treatment.  This type of information helps build a more comprehensive understanding of wild marine mammal and sea turtle populations.

If you see a stranded marine mammal or sea turtle, you can help the animal in distress by notifying your local stranding network and ensuring that no one disturbs the animal For more see the above tab, "How you can help".

Would you like to be surrounded by the smell of rotting whale flesh as you perform a necropsy? How about attempting to save a starving orphaned sea lion pup on a California beach? These activities are all in a day’s work for dedicated members of NOAA’s marine mammal and sea turtle stranding networks. But this kind of work can only be done by trained responders and scientists authorized under marine wildlife laws and regulations.

NOAA works with trained volunteer partners in every coastal state to respond to marine life in distress. Through the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, volunteers coordinated by NOAA rush to the scene of wildlife in distress.

Network members responding to strandings assess the condition of the live animal, and in certain cases attempt to rehabilitate or relocate the animal. In some cases, the animal is so sick or injured that the most humane option for the animal is euthanasia. If the animal is dead, responders perform a necropsy to learn more about the animal and what may have caused the stranding.

120 organizations are authorized by NOAA to respond to marine wildlife in distress

NOAA coordinates the marine mammal stranding response program, with volunteers from nonprofit organizations, aquariums, universities, federal, state, and local government agencies. Currently, NOAA has authorized more than 120 organizations to respond to marine life in distress, each with different rescue and rehabilitation specialties. NOAA also provides training to volunteers working with stranded animals.

Stranding network partners play an important role in responding to marine wildlife in distress. They are the first responders on the beach when a stranded animal is reported, and some organizations are responsible for transporting and rehabilitating sick or injured marine mammals and sea turtles. Together, NOAA and stranding network members ensure that wildlife in trouble are treated humanely. In addition, they collect data to help learn about what may have caused a particular animal to strand. Scientists also use the data to help provide context for larger ocean health trends.

When marine mammals strand in unusually high numbers, researchers from NOAA and the marine mammal stranding network come together to investigate potential causes and make connections between the elevated strandings and trends in ocean conditions.

Scientists sometimes classify large scale strandings of marine mammals as an “Unusual Mortality Event”--a stranding that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of a population, and demands immediate response. NOAA leads the team that declares Unusual Mortality Events, and coordinates efforts to investigate mass die-offs.

UNUSUAL MORTALITY EVENT: a stranding that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of a population, and demands immediate response

Understanding and investigating large scale stranding events is crucial to developing an accurate picture of ocean health. Strandings can serve as an indicator of the health of a particular ecosystem, providing clues about environmental issues like toxins and pollution that may affect human health.  

From 1991 to the present, there have been 62 formally recognized Unusual Mortality Events in the U.S. Bottlenose dolphins, California sea lions, and manatees are the marine life most commonly involved in mass strandings, although species that have stranded in large numbers range from gray whales to sea otters. Of the 62 official Unusual Mortality Events investigated by NOAA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife scientists and partners, scientists have determined causes for 32, including infections, biotoxins, human interactions including vessel strikes, and malnutrition.

You can support efforts to understand and investigate these large scale strandings by donating to the Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund. Your contributions will be used exclusively to cover the costs incurred by our stranding network partners during Unusual Mortality Event responses and investigations.

See our complete list of official mass stranding events declared by NOAA and more information about individual events.

Marine mammals and sea turtles in distress are in serious trouble and often need immediate attention. Do you know what to do if you see stranded or struggling marine life?

It takes cooperation and effort from everyone involved in a stranding to respond promptly to marine life in distress. Beachgoers and boaters are often the first to see stranded marine life and are a key part of making sure professional responders know about a stranding incident and arrive on the scene quickly.

If you see a stranded marine mammal or sea turtle, the first step you should take is to notify your regional stranding network via emergency hotline numbers. Reporting a stranded marine animal is the best way to ensure professional scientists and responders know about the incident and can respond appropriately. Be sure to have an accurate description of your location when reporting a stranded animal.

Each coastal region has a specific phone number dedicated to reporting stranded marine life. Once you make the call, responders get to the scene of the stranding as quickly as possible, where they assess the situation and respond to the animal’s needs, as appropriate.

Please do not approach stranded marine mammals or sea turtles. Marine mammals and sea turtles are wild animals and often behave unpredictably. Do not let pets approach marine life. Keep a safe distance when calling in information to the marine mammal stranding hotline, and remember that if you are not a trained professional or volunteer, you should not handle marine life. The best way to contribute to the animal’s assessment is by calling the stranding hotline or using the Dolphin & Whale 911 app to provide accurate information to the appropriate stranding network responders. The Dolphin & Whale 911 app provides information on what to do if you spot marine life in trouble and can connect you to the appropriate stranding network responders along the U.S. East Coast, West Coast, and Gulf of Mexico.

Prevention is the Best Cure

While NOAA and partners have the important responsibility of responding to sick and injured marine animals, you can help prevent injuries from happening in the first place. There are many things you can do to ensure the health of marine life, including viewing marine mammals and sea turtles responsibly, preventing marine debris from entering the ocean, and following responsible recreational fishing practices. These simple actions can protect marine life and help keep these animals thriving in the wild.

Published on
January 25, 2016