Not so fast Exxon Mobil, let’s agree to keep looking for answers

About 100 Mellon-headed whales stranded off the coast of Madagascar in 2008, and the author, right, was there in an effort to save them.As the American political scene is so nicely demonstrating, sometimes it is hard to come to a consensus.

Getting all of the parties to agree can be tough. 

That seems to be true for the report that an Independent Stranding Review Panel (ISRP) released last week regarding the 2008 mass stranding of melon-headed whales in Madagascar.

When we responded to that event as part of the team of international experts, it was all about the animals; trying to get as many safely back out to sea as we could while collecting as much data as possible from all of them – live and dead.

Only after the fact were all of the data compiled to try to figure out just what might have caused this event.

The ISRP, made up of experts in many fields from around the world, analyzed stranding data, environmental data, technical data from Exxon Mobil and other sources, and post event survey data.

SEE ALSO: Ocean noise cited in '08 whale mass stranding off the coast of Madagascar

By objectively reviewing the information, they determined that the use of multi-beam echo sounders (MBES) was the most likely factor in initiating a behavioral fight-or-flight response from the animals, causing the large group to leave its normal habitat and begin stranding within the lagoon system.

As someone who has participated in many mass stranding responses and responded to this event in 2008, I have to agree. As the report states- proving cause and effect is extremely difficult because there are just so many variables when dealing with animals in the wild.

That is why the panel used the words they did. 

In the Washington Post this week, several individuals challenged this finding. 

And that’s just the way it should be.

I respect those challenges - even the ones I feel confident I can refute - like the reference to satellite images taken before the MBES was used that supposedly showed dead animals on the beach. 

I’ve been doing this a long time, seen thousands of stranded animals, and conducted aerial surveys to locate carcasses.They didn’t look like stranded animals to me.

If we can’t question one another, we will never find the answers. But, in light of what I would consider pretty strong evidence indicating MBES initiated this event, shouldn’t we proceed with caution?

It’s true that MBES is used frequently and yet mass strandings don’t result each time the technology is used. Some would say - “so that must not be the cause!” Instead, we ask - what factors made this instance different?

If we can figure that out, we can prevent it in the future.

I confess; I am a conservationist and an environmentalist. But even the folks in the industry, like Exxon Mobil, don’t intentionally set out to kill whales and other marine mammals in the course of their daily work.

We need to use each new piece of information as it becomes available to craft effective policies and regulations for the protection of these species and their habitat while also supporting the sustainable use of natural resources.

Only by working together can we really achieve this goal.

Perhaps our honorable members of Congress can embrace this technique too!

I guess I can add idealist to conservationist and environmentalist as well...


For more information about IFAW efforts to protect whales and dolphins around the world, visit our campaign page.

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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation