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Gulf of Maine Times

Vol. 4, No. 2


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Letters to the Editor

Revisiting rescue motives

Apparently my out-of-context comments about strandings as presented in your last issue ["Gulf groups wade in to help stranded marine animals," Spring 2000 issue, Gulf of Maine Times] have caused some to believe that I am not a supporter of the stranding network - this couldn't be further from the truth. I have participated as a marine mammal stranding volunteer for over 20 years.

Individuals become involved in this work for any number of personal reasons, but for me the value of stranding response lies primarily in its role in scientific basic research, environmental management, and public safety. I believe these goals must be achieved while maintaining a high sensitivity to public perception through forthright, non-exploitive public outreach and education. These all are critically important aspects of the work with both immediate and long-term environmental benefits.

My comments are not meant to be critical of the stranding program in any way, but merely to remind those of us who work in conservation biology to periodically pause and reflect on our mission.

Stranded animals can be a very important indicator of environmental degradation and, in the case of endangered species, rehabilitation and release programs can provide valuable emergency aid. These factors alone should be a primary motivator for government and private funders to support stranding organizations that engage in sound science. But what also must be considered is that for the past three decades the Gulf of Maine has experienced a period of dramatic population growth of harbor seals, breeding range extension for gray seals, and foraging range extension of harp and hooded seals. These species present neonatal mortality rates that may seem high to modern human sensibilities, but which are perfectly normal for those populations.

An increased number of strandings is an expected outcome of thriving populations and, though furthering the science of marine mammal medicine is laudable, attempts to rehabilitate and release many of these animals likely provides no humane nor environmental benefits whatsoever.

There are few topics in wildlife biology that are more influenced by our emotions than marine mammal strandings. But, environmental public policy should be based on more than our gut feelings and human emotions and, fortunately, it usually is.

In the absence of adequate public funding for stranding response, dedicated individuals and organizations have taken on this important public service as a largely volunteer effort. The results of this have mostly been very positive. Nevertheless, whether publicly or privately funded, preparing for and mounting stranding response is expensive in both human and financial resources. Some private stranding organizations have very successfully capitalized on the emotional value of the experience in volunteer recruitment and fundraising programs. My caution is that our personal enrichment does not come at the expense of the environmental utility of our mission.

Bob Bowman
Mount Desert, Maine

Another rehab facility planned

A copy of your spring issue was forwarded to me with a comment that the person was surprised that your article about strandings, especially the section about lack of rehabilitation space, ignored the plans for a facility in Bourne, Massachusetts.

The National Marine Life Center, Inc. (NMLC) has a building and a lease for land on the Cape Cod Canal, and the architects are completing construction documents for a 19,000-square-foot/1,767-square-meter facility that will have the capability to rehabilitate the full range of marine animals: cetaceans, pinnipeds, and sea turtles.

The NMLC, an independent non-profit corporation, is also part of the Cape Cod Stranding Network (CCSN). Indeed, CCSN offices are in the NMLC building. Once the NMLC facility is complete, there will be a seamless transition from beach rescue to rehabilitation for those animals assessed as candidates for rehabilitation.

Sallie K. Riggs
The National Marine Life Center, Inc.
Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts

Editor's note: We regret that we did not learn of NMLC's project in time to include it in our Spring 2000 coverage of marine animal strandings and rehabilitation. For more information on NMLC's planned facility, visit