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Vol. 4, No. 1


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Gulf groups wade in to help stranded marine animals (cont'd)

Though some question whether costly efforts to rescue these animals, rehabilitate them, and release them back into the wild are necessary, or even beneficial, groups throughout the Gulf are working to do just that. 

The College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine and the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts are authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to handle marine mammal and sea turtle strandings. NMFS has authorized Massachusetts Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to respond to stranded sea turtles. These organizations, in turn, authorize other stranding and rehabilitation organizations or individuals to act on their behalf, and the resulting network provides coverage of the Gulf's US coastline.

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has not established an authorization system to address marine animal strandings, although anyone handling marine mammals or sea turtles must have a federal permit. DFO Marine Mammal Advisor Jerry Conway and Shannon Gowans, Executive Director of Blind Bay Cetacean Studies, said they hope to revitalize a stranding network that once operated out of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Meanwhile, said Conway, mammal and turtle stranding responses are organized according to who is available. 

Sea bird rescue and rehabilitation is supervised by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service with close involvement from state and provincial departments.

Though the US and Canada share information and expertise on marine animal strandings, there is no official collaboration on the issue.

Natural causes?

According to Bob Bowman, a naturalist and marine mammal biologist from Bar Harbor, Maine, a lack of scientific information on marine animals and why they strand calls into question whether human intervention, in the form of rescue and rehabilitition, is sound conservation practice.

He said he supports intervention if an animal poses a threat to public safety, or is stranded as a direct result of human activities, but he and others believe that some strandings are natural occurrences that help control and strengthen populations. He described human intervention as misguided in these cases. "No matter how cute they are, a certain number of baby seals have to die to keep a balanced population," Bowman stated.

"I think that man is interfering in a natural process and that we just may not understand why it's happening but it doesn't mean it's not supposed to happen," said Sarah Brewer, a lifelong resident in the fishing community of Southport Island, Maine. She believes stranding organizations manipulate public sympathy for animals to recruit support and raise funds for activities that she believes are not always justified.

"I think that man is interfering in a natural process and that we just may not understand why it's happening but it doesn't mean it's not supposed to happen," said Sarah Brewer, a lifelong resident in the fishing community of Southport Island, Maine. She believes stranding organizations manipulate public sympathy for animals to recruit support and raise funds for activities that she believes are not always justified.

But stranding response organizers said uncertainty about when a stranding is a completely natural occurrence drives them to try to save stranded animals. For example, a seal may strand because it is sick, but some researchers suspect marine animals' immune systems are being depressed by toxic pollution. A group of porpoises may strand because they became lost in a storm, but researchers say storm-stranded animals might have been migrating out of their usual range because their food supply has been depleted by over fishing.

"It would be easy for me to say let nature take its course as long as we're sure we didn't disturb nature in the first place," said Greg Jakush, President of Marine Animal Lifeline, a rescue and rehabilitation organization in Portland, Maine that works under the authority of the New England Aquarium.

Supporters of intervention also argue that even if a particular stranding is a natural event, people are obligated to help the stranded animals as a way of compensating for development, pollution, poaching, and other human activities that threaten them.

But Bowman said science-based management plans, not lack of certainty, should drive rescue and rehabilitation efforts. And, he emphasized, stranded animals present opportunities to gather scientific information that can help researchers learn more about the animals and factors in their environment - such as pollution - that affect them.

Acknowledging that researchers already collect data from stranded animals, including samples for a national tissue bank, Bowman called for more in-depth research to determine whether humans should be intervening when animals strand. And, because sea turtles and marine mammals are protected by federal laws, he added that the government should fund these studies.

Those who support intervention also cited the scientific and research opportunities as benefits of responding to stranded animals, but several of them also said it's human nature to try to help stranded animals. Bowman said he understands the "warm, fuzzy" feeling people get when they think they are helping an animal, but said that's not a good enough reason to intervene. He also added that it is common for rehabilitation efforts to fail.

Even so, organizations, many of which rely on private contributions, face pressure to help animals, whether or not scientific studies would support that action. Laurie Murison, Managing Director of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station, said staff there have learned that oiled seabirds rarely survive after rehabilitation, yet, "If you don't show that you're trying to do something, the public perception is very compromised." On the other hand, she noted, while Grand Manan's summer visitors are very concerned about the welfare of seals, many of the island's permanent residents consider the mammals a nuisance because they interfere with coastal fishing operations.

Stormy weather

Marine mammals and seabirds can strand anywhere along the Gulf's coastline, but sea turtles usually show up on the Cape. "Cape Cod is the stranding spot for the Northeast, and it is one of the major world stranding spots," said Dana Hartley, Northeast Region Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding Network Coordinator for NMFS.

Hartley explained that Cape Cod's geography is a major reason for the strandings. "It is very much of a catcher's mitt." That shape, combined with coastal webs of sand bars and rivers, extreme tides and weather patterns, and its location along migration routes make Cape Cod a likely spot for strandings.

As a result, Cape Cod is also home to several organizations that respond to stranded marine animals. The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary oversees sea turtle rescues, while the Cape Cod Stranding Network, under the authority of the New England Aquarium authorizes and coordinates several marine mammal stranding response groups in the Cape Cod vicinity.

Turtles feeding in Cape Cod Bay can become stranded when water temperatures drop suddenly in autumn, drastically lowering their body temperatures and rendering them "cold stunned." The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary recovers the stranded turtles from beaches. At the New England Aquarium, survivors are treated for hypothermia, infections, and injuries, and dead turtles are thoroughly examined.

New England Aquarium Veterinarian Andy Stamper holds a two-year-old critically ill Kemps ridley sea turtle. The turtle was one of more than 200 sea turtles that washed ashore on Cape Cod in a state called "Cold stunned." Many of the turtles were brought to the Aquarium for rehabilitation. Photo: Suzy Fried/Gulf of Maine Times

Bob Prescott of the Wellfleet Sanctuary, who is also Massachusetts Coordinator for the Northeast Regional Sea Turtle Stranding Network, has developed a method for predicting when and where the sea turtles will strand on Cape Cod, based on winds, water temperature, and tides. What he said he can't predict, however, "is how many turtles you're going to get in a given year."

This winter's 200-plus turtles came as a surprise to New England Aquarium Veterinarian Andy Stamper, who said usually "a dozen or two" wash ashore. Most of this winter's victims were critically endangered Kemps ridley sea turtles. The rest of the stranded turtles were endangered green sea turtles and loggerheads, classified as threatened. The Aquarium was able to save 80 of the Kemps ridleys.

Beth Turnbull, the Aquarium's Rehabilitation Veterinarian, said the recent turtle strandings are believed to be weather related, but that she is "looking into whether the turtles may have been unhealthy to begin with." Illness is often a factor in strandings of marine animals, and biologists believe strandings may, in some cases, be a natural means of separating a sick animal from the rest of the population.

A little room, please

In the case of seals, interaction with humans is sometimes the problem. Migrating seals frequently come ashore to rest in winter, and in the spring, a mother seal will commonly leave her pup on the beach while she hunts. The safety of the animal and the public become an issue when well-intentioned people who assume the animal is in trouble begin to crowd around it or try to "help" it by pouring water on it or feeding it. Stranding and rehabilitation organizations encourage people to report seals they believe are in trouble, but emphasize that people should not touch or disturb the animals.

An authorized stranding organization may simply relocate a healthy adult seal to a quieter beach. Or, if the seal is not in immediate danger or distress, may monitor it for a day or two to determine whether the animal is actually stranded. If the presence of humans has prevented a mother seal from returning to her pup, the orphaned animal is usually taken to a rehabilitation facility. A pup on a quieter beach may be monitored for a day in case the mother returns.

Lynne Colero, Animal Care Director for the Marine Animal Lifeline, a rescue and rehabilitation organization in Portland Maine, checks on a juvenile harbor seal that was found on Christmas Day with viral and bacterial infections. After it had recovered the seal was released. Photo: Suzy Fried/Gulf of Maine Times

Cetaceans (whales, porpoises, and dolphins), however, require immediate response because they can't support their hundreds of pounds of body weight without the buoyancy of water. On the beach, they are also vulnerable to predators, hypothermia (abnormally low body temperature) or hyperthermia (overheating), and sunburn. Responders usually try to move a porpoise or dolphin back into the water while they assess its condition. Cold stunned turtles and oiled seabirds, which are at risk of hypothermia, also require quick response.

Finding funds

Government funding for rescue and rehabilitation efforts is non-existent in Canada, and minimal in the US. Hartley said she has about $10,000 per year to distribute among organizations from Maine to Virginia. A federal Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Fund is available in the US for special cases, and Hartley said NMFS is trying to set up a similar fund for sea turtles.

More government money would become available to US organizations under proposed federal legislation that would provide grants of up to $100,000 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for rescue, rehabilitation, and data collection. Recipients would be required to match 25 percent.

In the mean time, stranding and rehabilitation organizations in the Gulf of Maine continue to fund their work almost exclusively with grants and private donations. They depend heavily on volunteers. They also rely on fishermen, beach goers, and others who call in sightings of stranded animals, and on town, provincial, and state agencies; law enforcement departments; researchers; and coast guard stations who help with response.

Nevertheless, some aspects of their work require cash. Rehabilitating a single seal can cost from $5,000 to $10,000 according to Jakush.

Monitoring animals after their release can also be expensive. Satellite telemetry tags that can track animals as they move, dive, hunt, and rest, are the best tools for determining how a rehabilitated animal is faring after its release, according to New England Aquarium Researcher Greg Early. But the tags - about the size of a small cell phone - start at $1,500 for the simplest version, not including satellite time. Earl said raising funds for research into what happens to rehabilitated animals after their release is more difficult than finding support for stranding response efforts.

Staff and volunteers from the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Cape Cod prepare to haul a dead female common dolphin to the New England Aquarium for necropsy (animal autopsy). The animal had been rescued, outfitted with a satellite tracking tag, and released a day earlier. Photo: Don Lewis/Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

The high cost of the tags prevents researchers from using them on more than a few rehabilitated animals, said Early, adding in regard to seals, "There is a big hole in our knowledge about what happens to these guys once you let them go."

In October, the Mystic Aquarium released two rehabilitated pilot whales that had stranded on Cape Cod in June. The Cape Cod Stranding Network drove the whales to the Connecticut facility on a flatbed truck. Since the whales' release, signals received from satellite tags attached to them have provided detailed information about their activities as they travel together throughout the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank.

Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station in New Brunswick runs a harbor porpoise satellite tagging study that has provided information on the animals' travels and behavior in the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine. In the summer, the porpoises can become trapped in coastal herring weirs - structures erected to trap fish. When this happens, fishermen notify researchers at the station who remove the porpoise, collect information on its weight, length, and gender, and then attach a satellite tag and a VHF (very high frequency) radio tag to its dorsal fin before releasing it. Researchers say they hope that what they learn about the animals will help them develop ways to reduce incidents in which porpoises become entangled or trapped in fishing gear.

Along with tracking rehabilitated animals, researchers also want to investigate how various environmental factors may be affecting marine animals. Hartley noted that information being gathered from stranded animals and compiled in federal databases should help, but the databases are only a few years old. "It's very much a science that's very young in development," said Sean Todd, Director of the Allied Whale program at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.

What are the options?

Depending on a stranded animal's condition and the resources available, US policy states that courses of action can include immediately returning it to the water, relocating it, euthanizing it, or taking it to a rehabilitation facility. DFO's policy is to attempt to return marine mammals to sea, given a shortage of such facilities in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, said Conway.

Once in a rehabilitation center, an animal will receive treatment for its condition or injury in the hope of returning the healed animal into wild, if rehabilitators determine it has a reasonable chance of survival. People caring for the animals try to prepare their patients to function in the natural world, taking care not to condition animals to rely on humans for companionship or survival. Rehabilitators try to release animals at a time and place that would fit into their population's usual migration patterns.

Participants in a workshop on cleaning oil from seabirds learn to handle and clean the birds in the event of an oil spill. Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management

To prepare a young piping plover for its return to the wild after recovering from a broken leg, Maritime Atlantic Wildlife (MAW) in Cookville, New Brunswick created a simulation of the bird's home beach, complete with native sand and recorded sounds of waves and gulls. Each day, rehabilitator Pam Novak would dump shrimp and meal worms into the sand so "he'd actually have to go and peck and find it."

Novak, who runs the facility with her husband, Barry Rothfuss, said the rehabilitation appeared to be successful. After a period of gradual acclimation to the outdoors, MAW released him, and eventually, "He hooked up with another plover and disappeared."

In response to concerns that some animals strand due to a genetic flaw, and that releasing a recovered but potentially still flawed animal endangers the rest of the population, NMFS maintains that the small numbers of animals released are not likely to affect a population's gene pool. And in the case of endangered species, NMFS policy states, every animal possible should be returned to the wild to contribute to the species' recovery.

If an animal being rehabilitated is not able to survive on its own due to some sort of disability, though it is healthy otherwise, rehabilitators will try to place it in a zoo or aquarium. In the US, NMFS' draft release policy recommends this as a second choice after releasing an animal to the wild.

But according to Hartley, while stranding and rehabilitation organizations try their best to find homes for these animals, they are not always successful due to facilities' lack of space or priorities. As a result, there have been occasions when such animals have been euthanized after rehabilitation, although "The [Northeast Regional Stranding] Network would never euthanize endangered sea turtles because of lack of space," Hartley said. In most cases, however, when any animal is put down, it is for "medical reasons," she said.

Too few rehab facilities

Centers that treat marine mammals and turtles in the Gulf of Maine are scarce, but growing.

In Maine, Marine Animal Lifeline is raising funds to build a larger facility. Also, the University of New England (UNE) in Biddeford, Maine, plans to break ground on its campus this summer for a new $7 million building that will include rehabilitation and research facilities for seals and sea turtles. According to Kathryn Ono, Assistant Professor in the UNE Department of Life Sciences, the facility will investigate the nature of diseases in the North Atlantic seal population and will also research how to improve rehabilitated seals' chances of survival. "What we want to do is work on getting protocols down to maximize our success rate."

Last year, the New England Aquarium opened a new $200,000 center in Duxbury, Massachusetts that can accommodate two or three small porpoises and dolphins - at a time. The Aquarium treats sea turtles and seals at its main location in Boston, though shortages of space and staff forced the Aquarium to send many of last winter's turtles to the Mystic Aquarium's much larger facility in Connecticut and to several institutions in the southeast for additional care and rehabilitation. No rehabilitation facilities for cetaceans exist in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. Maritime Atlantic Wildlife Rescue in New Brunswick handles seals, but a seal rehabilitation facility at Dalhousie University has since been converted for other research.

Valuable volunteers

Despite the hard work and heartache involved in working with stranded marine animals under sometimes grueling conditions, stranding response and rehabilitation groups seem to have little trouble recruiting hundreds of volunteers. Some are fascinated by the animals, others feel they have to "help," even though Bowman and others say what they are doing may not be helping at all.

Don Lewis, a volunteer with the Wellfleet Sanctuary, helped recover stranded sea turtles in November and December. "I think the last live loggerhead we got was on Christmas Day," he recalled. "The rest of the ones they brought in that week were dead. There were 20 beautiful loggerheads lined up like a cord of wood, and that's a sad sight. But you just reflect back on all the lives that you did save, and that gets you through." In January and February, Lewis discovered more than 30 dead diamondback terrapins in the frozen mud of Wellfleet's marshes.

Volunteers from the Cape Cod Stranding Network support white sided dolphins in the water during a mass stranding in Wellfleet, Massachusetts in March 1999. Photo: E. Touhey/Cape Code Stranding Network

Lee Ann Szelog and her husband, Tom, live in midcoast Maine and volunteer with Marine Animal Lifeline because they want to help animals return to the wild. Describing the first time she fed an orphaned seal pup, Szelog said, "Once I knew that formula was going down through the tube and into the baby, I was overwhelmed."