Why are Whales Stranding in the Gulf?

In recent months, two young sperm whales stranded themselves along the coast of Louisiana. These events highlight the importance for quality health and diagnostic information for the marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico. What could kill one of the greatest predators to ever exist on earth?

These animals are harmed by many of the same factors that harm us, like food scarcity, chronic exposure to pollutants, disease and a poor environment. For humans, we have the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to control and prevent disease and injury. To operate effectively, the CDC relies on consistent and timely data gathered across the U.S. and beyond. Somewhat analogous to the CDC for marine mammals like dolphins and whales, the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program compiles data on diseases and the well-being of sick or injured animals.

However, there has been a long-standing problem with this program in the Gulf. Appropriately trained staff available to collect priceless data points to understand emerging health concerns, or who have the capacity to help recover a live whale or dolphin, have always been stretched thin. The limited support available to the diverse group of organizations that collect this information has caused problems with data consistency. Lack of consistency inhibits development of an effective database that enables detection of longer-term trends across the region.

But this situation is beginning to change in the Gulf. Much needed capacity is now growing thanks to investments resulting from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster and partnerships with aquariums in the region. The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has provided grants to Mississippi, Alabama and Florida to improve rehabilitation capacity and increase the ability to better assess long-term trends in Gulf populations from the condition of stranded animals. SeaWorld has formalized a partnership with the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network to provide rehabilitation facilities in San Antonio along with providing additional diagnostic and veterinary capabilities.

Each of these investments is an important step in our ability to diagnose and solve problems that are harming these majestic creatures of the ocean. The Gulf of Mexico is blessed with a diversity of marine mammal species, and with the $144 million included in the BP settlement to help marine mammals recover from the BP oil disaster, we have a real opportunity to improve the health of these animals. However, we cannot claim to spend this money wisely to mitigate harm if we do not understand trends in their overall health. In other words, we can’t manage what we don’t know. To do this we must continue to capitalize on every opportunity to build a world-class network of trained response teams, diagnostic capabilities and epidemiology information systems. Without this capacity we severely hinder our ability to ensure these species are plying the oceans for generations to come.

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