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July 18, 2014

Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events Get the Spotlight on Capitol Hill


Earlier this week, marine mammals like California sea lions, common dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins were the focus of one Congressional Briefing. Hosted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Congressman Bill Keating of Massachusetts and Congressman Jared Huffman of California, the discussion centered on scientists from The Marine Mammal Center and the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center speaking about unusual levels of marine mammal stranding in 2013, and how funding cuts are deeply affecting their ability to respond. Over 80 Congressional staff members, National Government Organization employees, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) employees sat in on the Briefing.

Marine mammal strandings—when animals like dolphins or whales beach themselves because of disease, starvation, injury, algal blooms, and other causes—occur naturally on a regularly basis across many U.S. beaches. But last year, both the East and West Coasts saw animals stranding in such unusually high numbers that NOAA declared Unusual Mortality Events (UME) in both cases. These are instances are characterized by “a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response,” as outlined in the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Strandings are significant, and not just for the life of a marine mammal: They require intensive response efforts and can provide insight into the health of the marine ecosystem. “This work allows us to make scientific gains, in this case offering insights into fishery management, but also investigating and identifying issues like domoic acid toxicity, cancers, and diseases that arise, or marine pollution, and the links to our own human health,” The Marine Mammal Executive Director Jeff Boehm said at the briefing. “The fact that these are not endangered species, by working with them, they’re giving us this window into the oceans that’s extraordinary.”

Take a look below to learn more about UMEs in 2013:

California Sea Lion

California sea lions started stranding frequently in January 2013, and by the end of the year, more than 1,600 sea lions came onshore in California. According to Boehm, most of the sea lions were juveniles, just six to eight months old—and arrived at The Marine Mammal Center abandoned, malnourished, and suffering from secondary infections. The fact that they stranded so young was alarming, as sea lion pups typically stay with their mothers until 11 months of age so that they can nurse and learn to forage.

Initial results from the ongoing investigation into this UME found that it was likely caused by fluctuations and dispersion of prey species such as sardines, which has been linked to El Nino events in the past. Roughly a year after the UME, NOAA found that sardines crashed by 74 percent since 2007 with no signs of recovery.

This year, sea lions are still stranding in higher numbers than usual, but not like they were in 2013.

Bottlenose Dolphins

In July 2013, bottlenose dolphins started stranding in unusually high numbers across the Mid-Atlantic. The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center’s research coordinator Susan Barco reported that in a normal year, there are 50 to 65 dolphin strandings in Virginia, with about 25 to 30 of those occurring in May and June and six to seven per month from July to September. But by mid-July in 2013, there was at least one stranding per day, and at the height of the event, there were 18 per day. Over 1,300 bottlenose dolphins stranded on the East Coast in 2013, and the event is still ongoing.

The cause of the event was cetacean morbillivirus, which can cause abnormal behavior, skin lesions, pneumonia, and brain infections in marine mammals. Morbillivirus also caused a bottlenose dolphin UME event in 1987.

Common Dolphins

Though it wasn’t an official UME event, the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s program director Katie Moore spoke about a mass common dolphin stranding in 2012 off Massachusetts, when 215 dolphins stranded in 83 days. Different theories for the stranding include extreme weather, geo-magnetic anomalies that may have affected navigational abilities, and the fact that these marine mammals form social bonds, so when one family member strands, they all strand.

Moore, and all of the guest speakers at the Briefing, spoke about how their work would not be possible without the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program, which has funded marine mammal stranding programs since 2001. Funding for this program, however, was reduced from $4 million annually to $1 million in 2013, yet the expectations for marine mammal stranding response continue to increase. All three speakers called on Congressional members and the Obama Administration to recognize how important Prescott funding is to their work, and to reconsider budget funding in the 2015 fiscal year and beyond.

Only when Congress, NGOs, NOAA, and dedicated volunteers work together, we can ensure the health and welfare of marine mammals in the U.S.