Collaborative project seeks to improve response to marine mammal strandings

Collaborative project seeks to improve response to marine mammal strandings
Thursday, 18 January, 2018
Washington, DC

Every year, hundreds of dolphins, whales, porpoises and seals strand along coastlines around the world. Fortunately in some locations, networks of scientists, vets, and volunteers are able to respond to these animals and rescue some that come ashore alive.  Through these rescue events, scientists are also able to investigate what may have caused the animals to strand.  These efforts have led to an understanding of the role of marine mammals in the marine ecosystem, the identification of emerging diseases (some zoonotic), and details of the natural history, distribution, biology and health of endemic marine mammal populations. Furthermore, the study of both live and dead animals has led to significant improvements in the care, treatment and survival of stranded animals. The insights gained have also aided in the global management and conservation of marine mammal species.

However, there are still miles of coastline around the world where strandings remain uninvestigated and animals are unable to be rescued in time. As a result, the welfare of live stranded animals suffers and vast amounts of data are lost. Over the last several years, a group of acclaimed marine mammal scientists from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, (IFAW), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries and The Marine Mammal Center (TMMC) committed to improve the rescue, survivability and investigation of stranded marine mammals globally. 

“With nearly two decades of marine mammal response and rescue experience at IFAW, our team has increased the survival rate of stranded animals from 14% to over 75%. With our partners at NOAA Fisheries, WHOI and TMMC, we are now taking our learnings global to build a network of rescue responders who will be able to save more lives and increase our knowledge of marine mammals,” says Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare at IFAW.

This is not the first attempt to help develop stranding networks in other places, but this effort is different. For many years, marine mammal scientists from around the world travelled to key locations to provide training in stranding response protocols.  However, the one-off trainings, though well-intentioned, were often unsuccessful in establishing effective, sustainable stranding networks. “An additional concern was that training materials and resources provided ranged widely in content and were far more complex than required for inexperienced or beginner responders common in most countries with nascent stranding response networks,” says Dr. Mridula Srinivasan, Chief, Protected Species Science Branch, NOAA Fisheries Office of Science and Technology

In 2014, leaders in stranding response efforts from NOAA Fisheries, IFAW, TMMC and other institutions came together to address these issues and develop a model for the establishment of marine mammal stranding networks from inception to long-term viability and growth.  With the help of 34 international experts from 12 countries worldwide, the team has completed the first phase of the program, known as the Global Marine Animal Stranding Training toolkit or GMAST ( This phase is basic, providing an introduction to the investigation and rescue of stranded marine mammals. Built into the toolkit is also a series of resources, such as , examples of protocols for field response, primers on euthanasia and large whale stranding response, care of live animals, and investigation of deceased animals (data is freely available with registration at  One of the best aspects of the toolkit is access to experts in all of the various related fields to support these emerging networks as they grow.

GMAST is not only a series of trainings or protocols, but also a plan for each step in building a successful network  - including topics such as, recommended training curriculum, volunteer recruitment and training, field response protocols and data collection.  Our objective is to communicate globally accepted best practices for marine mammal stranding response, and identify and equip key local personnel to be trainers.  In principle, as the network expands, so will the pool of knowledgeable and skilled experts available to share their knowledge and experience and ultimately build a global stranding response community that is prepared to identify, understand, and address present and future threats to marine mammal populations

Even as we are beginning to deploy this tool and evaluate efficacy, we are looking for support to develop Phase 2, which will be an intermediate level set of training materials to bring networks to the next level. Our goal is for this toolkit to be an open resource that, with the help of a core group of experts, can be quickly deployed around the world with local partners to establish strong stranding networks.

About IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare)

Founded in 1969, IFAW rescues and protects animals around the world. With projects in more than 40 countries, IFAW rescues individual animals, works to prevent cruelty to animals, and advocates for the protection of wildlife and habitats. For more information, visit Follow us on social at @action4ifaw and Facebook/IFAW.

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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