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A NOAA Scientist Dedicated to Her Work with Marine Mammals

Dr. Erin Fougères is a marine mammal scientist working for NOAA Fisheries in the Southeast Region, including states of Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi. Dr. Erin Fougères is a marine mammal scientist working for NOAA Fisheries in the Southeast Region, including states of Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.

Meet NOAA’s Erin Fougères
Dr. Erin Fougères works for NOAA Fisheries in the SE Region. She worked the BP oil spill as one of NOAA’s lead marine mammal scientists in the Region representing the National Stranding Network.

The Gulf of Mexico is rich with marine life, including 21 different species of marine mammals that includes 9 species of dolphins.

During NOAA’s response to the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill last April, NOAA scientists fanned out along the Gulf Coast in boats, helicopters and on foot to understand how these creatures were being impacted and to rescue those in distress.

We recently sat down to talk with Fougères, who decided years ago to dedicate her life to the study and protection of dolphins, whales and other marine mammals.

Why did you become Marine Mammal scientist? Like a lot of people, I grew up going to the beach every summer with my family. I loved it, and I loved the wildlife that I saw there.  It was always my dream to be a biologist. I started working with marine mammals in college, through a research project studying  elephant seals in northern California. I was fascinated with the physical adaptations that allow them to survive in such a challenging marine environment.

How were you involved in the BP Oil Spill work? My job as the Marine Mammal Stranding Administrator is to oversee the stranding response team (network) and to make sure they are prepared to respond to strandings. In our Region, we have an average of approximately 700 marine mammal strandings per year. We work with more than 40 different organizations and state, federal and local government agencies that are trained to respond to strandings. During the BP oil spill, we worked behind the scenes trying to anticipate and prepare for possible stranding scenarios. Although stranding rates were above average during the spill, fortunately we did not have as many strandings as our worst case scenarios might have predicted.

Dolphins seem to be getting most of the attention since the spill. What do we know so far about how they have been impacted? The investigation is ongoing into what effects the oil spill might have on dolphins. We saw elevated stranding numbers before the oil spill even occurred, and they remained high throughout the oil spill and after the well was permanently sealed. Recently, we’ve seen an increase in strandings of very young dolphins.  All of the strandings in the northern Gulf from February 2010 through the present have been designated as an Unusual Mortality Event (UME).  Some strandings in this UME may or may not be related to the oil spill, but we are working hard to try to determine the causes of the mortalities.  There are a number of things that can cause dolphins to strand including parasites, harmful algae blooms, pollution exposure, unusual weather or oceanographic events and illness.

Are you concerned about the long-term impacts to dolphins? Yes, I am very concerned. There is so much we don’t know about dolphins since they can be very difficult to study.   We do know that the Gulf of Mexico is rich habitat for dolphins and whales, and there are a number of species in both coastal and offshore waters. We are actively studying what the impacts of the oil spill could be on marine mammals, but it may be years before we know the full extent of the injuries.  NOAA scientists have been there since day one, and we’ll keep working on it for as long as it takes.

NOAA scientists have said for a long time that dolphins can be seen as sentinels to human health. Do you have concerns that the recent increase in dolphin deaths in the Gulf could be a sign that this may mirror problems for human health?  Because dolphins are top predators in their environment and are mammals like us, things that are impacting their surroundings and affecting their health could ultimately impact us too. However, we are still trying to determine the cause of the recent increase in dolphin deaths in the Gulf, and this ongoing process could take a long time. I’m reassured knowing that NOAA acted quickly to close federal waters to fishing during the oil spill, and that these areas were reopened only after seafood passed extensive testing.

Any final words for us? Our oceans have become very popular and busy places with numerous threats to marine mammals, such as exposure to pollution and noise or entanglement in fishing gear and impacts with vessels. NOAA scientists are dedicated to doing all we can to learn about these fascinating animals, and to make sure they are healthy and prolific for years to come. Some of our scientists do their work at desks and some are on the beach or on the water. I think that the American people can be confident in knowing that wherever we are, we are working hard and dedicating our careers to conserving marine mammals.

About the Marine Mammal Stranding Network

Fougères serves as a marine mammal scientist for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, created in the early 1980s to provide a consistent framework in which to collect and compile data about marine mammals. The network is composed of volunteers based at academic institutions, state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations.

To learn more about the protection of marine mammals, visit
the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service website. You can also learn more about the recent dolphin deaths in the Gulf and access historical and current stranding data by visiting NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources website.