Why are Whales Stranding in the Gulf?

By: Matt Love

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 wellbeing
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.