As the season approaches for marine mammal strandings, the federal agency responsible for monitoring them is seeking help.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in an announcement that it has been looking for an organization to take over the marine mammal stranding program since January with no response. In the interim, NOAA is exploring whether towns on the Vineyard, Nantucket and the north shore of Massachusetts would be willing to step in.
A conference call was scheduled for Tuesday morning with town halls on the Vineyard, Nantucket and 12 towns from the New Hampshire border to Gloucester. Town selectmen, police chiefs and animal control officers have been invited to talk with NOAA about what they could do to assist with response to calls of strandings.
The New England Aquarium was previously responsible for oversight on marine mammal strandings but early this year the aquarium shifted its focus exclusively to turtle strandings.
There is a volunteer network on the Vineyard that includes about 30 certified responders for rescue calls on dolphins, whales, seals and other marine mammals that become stranded. But the volunteer responders may not operate without an oversight organization in place.
“We won’t have people on the ground unless a town is able to do more than it has in the past,” said Maggie Mooney-Seus, a communications spokesman for NOAA in Gloucester, on Monday. “We want to temper expectations but we really want the public to realize that even if a response isn’t as quick as we would want, still contact us because the information they provide to us is critical to monitor.”
It is illegal for an unauthorized person to come within 150 feet of a stranded marine mammal.
The Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program was established in 1992 under the Marine Protection Act after a large number of strandings and marine mammal deaths. Responders are trained and authorized by NOAA, which specifies the animals they can work with and their level of interaction.
The only partner in the region qualified to respond to mammal strandings is the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which responds to calls on Cape Cod.
“If there was a real problem we would reach out to them to see if there was anyone to help, but Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are not in their area of jurisdiction,” Ms. Mooney-Seus said.
“We’d love an organization to step up and fill this void for us,” Ms. Mooney-Seus said. “We need people to continue to report to us when they see an animal. The information we get from those reports is really important . . . to track trends across the region, see if we’re seeing any unusual amounts of stranded species, disease or mortality events.”
Seals are of great concern on the Vineyard, Ms. Mooney-Seus said.
“We have more likelihood of running into seals during the warmer weather,” she said, noting that beaches are normal habitat for a seal. “It may be doing what it naturally does . . . but our first course of action is to monitor the situation and make sure there isn’t a need to do anything,” she said.
Suzan Bellincampi, director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary and member of the Vineyard mammal responding team, said she is still responding to sea turtle strandings through the Mass Audubon program’s affiliation with the aquarium, but has been directing all other calls to NOAA.
“We cannot respond anymore because none of our staff is recognized,” Ms. Bellincampi said. “We can educate and provide resources.”
To report a marine mammal stranding, please call NOAA Fisheries Northeast Regional 24-hour hotline at 866-755-6622.