Learning from West Coast marine mammal strandings

The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network (Network) responds to thousands of strandings of whales and other marine mammals every year, and biologists do their best to learn from each one.

A new collection of studies compiled by NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region documents just how much scientists have learned from those cases and other efforts of the Network. From sea lion strandings linked to toxic algae blooms to the health of endangered Southern Resident killer whales, the studies include many key findings about marine mammal populations on the West Coast.

The Stranding Network responded to a live gray whale stranded near Everett, Washington, in 2012. Teams successfully freed the whale and it later swam away. Photo: Kristin Wilkinson/NOAA Fisheries

“This really shows the full range of what the Network does,” said Kristin Wilkinson, NOAA Fisheries’ Regional Stranding Coordinator for Oregon and Washington. “This gives everyone new insight into the science that comes out of these stranding events, which tells us a lot about marine mammals and their health, and informs our management decisions.”

Humpback whale carcass in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Photo: Kathy Burek-Huntington, Alaska Veterinary and Pathology Services

Wilkinson credited the California, Oregon, and Washington organizations that comprise the Network for making the most of research opportunities when strandings occur. NOAA Fisheries coordinates and leads the Network, part of a nationwide program established under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

A research team conducts a necropsy on a Bryde's whale that stranded on Squaxin Island, Wash. in 2012. Bryde's whale is a subtropical species that is unusual in the Pacific Northwest. Photo: Kristin Wilkinson/NOAA Fisheries

Wilkinson added, “When a marine mammal strands, we’re always asking the question, ‘What is the reason in this case, and what can we learn from it?’ We can use these situations to make advances in medical treatment for stranded animals and improvements in rehabilitation methods for injured marine mammals.”

The research compilation spans 2005 through 2016 and includes studies on stranding patterns, diseases, anatomy and physiology, contaminants, and more. It includes links to many of the full abstracts and studies, and it was developed as a resource for the public, researchers, and others. The compilation includes details of how NOAA Fisheries and others will use the findings.

Wildlife veterinarian Joe Gaydos, chief scientist of the SeaDoc Society, said he is impressed by the volume and quality of the peer-reviewed science that has come from the Network. The SeaDoc Society is a program of the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

“The papers provide data that help managers and policy makers improve their efforts,” Gaydos said. “It is a great example of how targeted federal funding can leverage private funding sources to create scientific data that advances marine mammal conservation around the country.”

For more information on the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network: http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/protected_species/marine_mammals/stranding_network.html

Homepage: Humpback whale and calf. Photo: HIHNMS/NOAA