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Marine Mammal Program Wins Prestigious Award

Menhaden fishing vessels in the Gulf of Mexico Marine Mammal Stranding Network in action at the site of a pilot whale stranding in 2005.

The International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine has awarded NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program with its 2011 Award for Excellence, The Mark Keyes Award for Marine Mammal Conservation. The award recognizes the collaborative partnership between NOAA and the numerous organizations that participate in the stranding network, and gives a special nod to NOAA’s veterinarians Dr.Teri Rowles and Dr. Janet Whaley for their role in developing the program into "the gold standard around the world elevating science, pathology, medicine and environmental health to the forefront."

“To be given such an important award by the nation’s leading aquatic animal health scientists is a great honor for us,” said Rowles, Coordinator of NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. “Working cooperatively over the past two decades with our partners in the stranding network, wildlife agencies, animal care facilities and academic institutions has significantly advanced our abilities to provide rapid care to marine mammals in distress.”


Menhaden fishing vessels in the Gulf of Mexico Responding to a pilot whale stranding.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA Fisheries Service is responsible for conserving dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions in the United States. In 1992, Congress amended the act and established the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program. This program is responsible for collecting, investigating and monitoring the health of marine mammals and coordinates emergency response to assist stranded or distressed marine mammals around the nation.

The Program’s work to monitor the health of marine mammals and understand the causes of strandings can lead to important discoveries that may affect the health of humans or other species that live in or near the ocean.  “Marine mammals are important sentinels of ocean health,” emphasized Rowles, “as the wildlife conservation medicine field moves toward an entire system, or “One Health”, approach to evaluate environmental health our efforts take on a greater significance.”

The Mark Keys Award for Marine Mammal Conservation was established by the International Association of Aquatic Animal Medicine in 1988 as an Award of Excellence in honor of Dr. Mark Keys, an accomplished veterinary r

Menhaden fishing vessels in the Gulf of Mexico Dr. Teri Rowles and NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill response.

esearcher and diplomat who worked on the northern fur seal management program of NOAA in the Pribilof Islands, Alaska.  The award is given to

programs that make a significant impact on the conservation of one or more species of marine mammal through any or all of the following areas: scientific research, political action, management of the species in the wild, management of the species in captivity, and education. 

Responding to Marine Mammals in Distress

The Marine Mammal Stranding Network relies on the public to report marine mammals in distress.  As requested by NOAA and the Network, people should never approach a stranded or distressed marine mammal, no matter how tempting. Instead, they can report strandings to local authorities who will alert the Stranding Network .

Once the Network receives a report of a stranded marine mammal, a trained “stranding network responder” is sent to the scene. If the animal is alive an authorized veterinarian will quickly assesses the health and condition of the animal.  Based on its condition, the veterinarian determines whether it will be

Menhaden fishing vessels in the Gulf of Mexico Examination of a humpback whale on Long Beach, WA

released, taken to an authorized rehabilitation facility, or euthanized.  In many cases, stranded animals are in poor condition and the most humane option to prevent their suffering is to euthanize the animal. If the stranded animal is already dead, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network responder will conduct a necropsy – an animal autopsy –on the beach or in a special necropsy lab to determine the cause.

Each year, 3,500 to 6,000 stranded marine mammals are reported to the National Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Mass strandings, such as the recent pilot whale stranding event in Florida Keys last week, involves more than two whales or dolphins stranding at the same time and place. An Unusual Mortality Event occurs when strandings or deaths are determined to be abnormal or unexpected, or involve a significant die-off of a marine mammal population, and demand immediate response. Special investigation teams are assembled to determine the causes of Unusual Mortality Events, including the event currently occurring in the Northern Gulf of Mexico.