Stranding Response

To report a marine mammal in distress (dolphin, manatee, etc) please call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC (3922) or you can reach them on your marine radio on VHF Channel 16. 

Animals such as whales, dolphins, manatees and sea turtles that are ill or injured may result in animals that are found on the beach or shoreline. These are usually referred to as being stranded if they are alive and beached if they are dead. These terms are most often used with whales and dolphins though the same may apply to sea turtles and manatees. People or organizations that wish to be involved in assisting with stranded whales and dolphins are permitted through NMFS. Classically these are volunteer individuals or groups that may include private organizations, oceanaria, universities, or municipalities. These activities are permitted through Letters of Authorization from the regional coordinators offices. There is a national coordinator and 5 regional coordinators that are responsible for overseeing and coordinating stranding activities as well as providing for training to stranding personnel.

The Order Cetacea is comprised of the whales, dolphins and porpoises and includes 78 different species. This group is broken up into two sub orders, the toothed whales (Odontoceti) and the baleen whales (Mysticeti). While the 67 species of toothed whales are more familiar to the general public from their exposure on television and marine parks the 11 species of baleen whales are just as fascinating much less is known. While man has observed and hunted many of these individuals and groups for thousands of years it is only for a short time that we have begun to appreciate their unique place in the fabric of marine life. As with any species they evolve and exist in a balance with the other marine species that comprise the marine ecosystem which some may refer to as the food chain.

While a comprehensive knowledge base of many these species would normally include their basic biology, physiology, anatomy, behavior, nutrition, reproduction, as well as morbidity and mortality factors it has been limited in scope in part because of their vast range of body sizes and special needs making it impossible to closely study many of the species in controlled environments. For the smaller cetaceans such as dolphins the history of their association with humans had also been deleterious and in some cases short sighted. Over time there has been the development of partnerships between federal and state agencies, private groups, oceanaria, media and the general public to better protect these species and to understand those factors that can contribute to their survival or influence their demise.

Legislation and Governance

In Florida, the responsibility for managing the marine resources which include marine mammals falls under two main umbrellas. The state agency involved in marine species is the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Their wildlife page is helpful in understanding their work which includes both land based and marine species. Their emphasis with marine mammals is centered on the Florida manatee and the Northern Right Whale but they also are involved in other stranded marine species such as whales and dolphins. In addition they are heavily invested in sea turtle management and research with very progressive programs that partner with sea turtle rehabilitation facilities, emphasize sea turtle nesting protection, and are involved in numerous research projects wit many outside research partners. The federal component for marine mammal protection is the Office of Protected Resources which is a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) program falling under NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service). These groups fall under the U.S. Department of Commerce.

In the United States it was recognized that the rate of loss of many marine mammal species would be unstoppable unless legislation was enacted to protect them. In 1969, congress enacted the Endangered Species Conservation Act. This was the early form of the Endangered Species Act and set the groundwork for later improvements in managing species that were likely to be lost without intervention. In 1972, congress placed a moratorium on the take of all marine mammals. Take is a catch all category to indicate any removal from the wild environment and includes capture, injury and killing of an individual. Also in 1972, congress established the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) which gave the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its subgroup the National Marine Fisheries Service the authority for all cetaceans and pinnipeds except walrus. In 1973, the Endangered Species act (ESA) replaced the Endangered Species Conservation Act.

Another landmark improvement was made in 1992 when congress enacted Title IV of the MMPA which established the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. This legislation set up stranding response agreements between volunteer groups and the NMFS, Unusual Mortality Event response and funding (UME), guidelines for the collection of scientific data, establishment of release guidelines, establishment of a tissue bank, and establishment of the Prescott Grant Program that supports members of the stranding network with competitive grant funds to improve stranding capability and response. The OPR functions to conserve, protect and recover species under the ESA and the MMPA.

Cetaceans maintained on exhibit in public aquaria and zoos are under the care of veterinarians and caretakers but are also subject to the authority of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Through the Animal Welfare Act standards of care have been established and regular inspections of facilities housing marine animals are carried out.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commission may also regulate Florida wildlife that are indigenous to Florida waters with their own set of regulations concerning their housing and care. They carry out inspections of facilities and investigate concerns or complaints regarding their care.

As you can see marine mammals are restricted as to their ownership and care requirements which has led to the beginning of minimal standards of care that is constantly being updated.

 

Our involvement

 

The Aquatic Animal Health Program within the University of Florida supports education, research, and conservation of Florida’s aquatic wildlife.   We assist NMFS and other stranding response organizations on a regular basis providing clinical, necropsy, and research services. Sea turtles have long been a part of our program and we collaborate in these events with the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, state rehabilitation facilities, and many others.  Activities include health surveillance, studies of causes of mortality of stranded sea turtles through necropsy, investigation of unusual mortality events, emergency response (such as cold-stunning events and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill), disease research, and facilitation of biological studies.

In 2012, an essential vehicle was purchased for sea turtle research and veterinary emergency response through a grant awarded from the Sea Turtle Grants Program.  This truck is used for activities that directly benefit state and federal sea turtle program goals related to sea turtle health and impacts from human activity.  The Sea Turtle Grants Program is funded from proceeds from the sale of the Florida Sea Turtle License Plate.   Learn more at www.helpingseaturtles.org.