Conservation challenges cannot be solved by stop-gap measures. When whales and dolphins wash ashore our coasts, the instinctive reaction is to address the symptom and not the underlying problem. Reactionary measures provide temporary respite from fleeting media and public scrutiny. Eventually, things return to business as usual until the next stranding episode.
When whales, dolphins or sea turtles strand, they leave an indelible mark in people’s minds. For marine biologists, however, strandings in India and elsewhere are not a new phenomenon. Marine life strandings are episodic and generally rare events. But intense and increasing pressures from human activities (e.g., fisheries or coastal development) can potentially increase their frequency.
Responding to a stranded dolphin or whale, whether alive or dead, is not an easy task for the untrained. Despite good intentions, an untrained person trying to rescue a distressed animal is putting herself and the animal at risk. Even a dead animal poses a risk to human health because of the potential for disease transmission from animal to humans (zoonosis). Additionally, responding to a stranded animal is a team job that requires organisation and clear delegation of roles and responsibilities.
Responding to strandings
The objective of a rescue is not simply to return an animal to sea – disregarding why the animal stranded in the first place or whether the animal is in a state to be released. Critically, a stranded animal, especially one that’s dead, is a warehouse of information speaking volumes about its health, condition, life history, and possibly, the cause of death. Moreover, a live animal returned to sea does not necessarily mean it survived. In all likelihood, it perished at sea or became stranded elsewhere.
So, while it can be very fulfilling to see an animal swim back to sea, these euphoric moments maybe short-lived without documentation of post-release survival. Releasing or returning to sea is still undoubtedly the best option but a live stranded animal has to be provided supportive care and evaluated before a ‘release’ determination is made.
Rehabilitation of a marine mammal in captivity is incredibly expensive and risky – and not a viable long-term option, especially in India, where funds need to be spent on more urgent conservation priorities like addressing bycatch, habitat degradation and marine debris. But if an animal is deemed ‘unreleasable’ by experts, the most humane option may be to euthanise the animal by trained professionals. This is particularly true for dolphins but not so much for whales, which require expert help and where outcomes can often be unpredictable. And there may be little recourse but to return the whale to sea, letting it die naturally and/or burying the animal post-mortality depending on body condition and initial health assessment.
Mass strandings calls for additional considerations, but the response sequence and actions remain unchanged but do require significantly more resources. Ultimately, whether it is a dead or live stranded animal, there are systematic pieces of biological information that need to be collected. The priority for a live animal response is to provide supportive care to the animal, evaluate its condition for release, collect minimal identifying information and track the animal post-release. For dead animals, there is no shortage of information that can be collected. But collection of data is just the beginning; the biological samples and information collected needs to be properly processed and archived. Finally, the results need to be publicly accessible or published in peer-reviewed journals.
Recently, there have been several reports of whale and dolphin strandings along India’s coastline (some cases here, here, here and here). These may appear to be isolated incidents, but taken together, they reflect commonalities in the way rescue or response efforts are executed and the aftermath.
For example, most stranding events draw large crowds that are uncontrolled and can lead to safety concerns for responders. It is incredible that there are no reports of injuries during these chaotic events. Significantly, incident reporting in media becomes a one-off matter. There is no follow up on determining why an animal stranded or what happened to the released animal? A plethora of articles published after a stranding event focus on generalities, such as why stranding happens, rather than seeking scientific and government solutions for a recurring problem. Also, there is no information about the outcome of sampling or necropsy done on a stranded animal. And none of the reports or results are reported in a peer-reviewed outlet or public forum.
These events will continue and become headliners unless there is a paradigm shift in how stranding events and marine conservation matters are handled nationally. Without established guidelines and best practices, there will continue to be ‘incidents’ that become bylines – while the marine ecosystem deteriorates and marine populations are extirpated. An unhealthy and unproductive marine ecosystem can irreparably damage prospects for the country’s growing blue economy and also drastically affect coastal livelihoods.
A suggested solution
In 2010, a national marine mammal stranding response workshop was organised in Kochi at the Central Marine Fisheries Institute, and involved trainers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and International Fund for Animal Welfare. It was a primer on marine mammal stranding response that dwelled on the technical and structural aspects of a functioning and sustainable stranding network.
After the workshop, participants and regional scientists contributed to developing a ‘National Framework for Marine Animal Stranding Response’ in India. The idea for this action plan was to establish guiding principles for marine animal response, rescue and research in India, particularly marine mammals. The intent of the framework was not to create another government regulatory body, rather to provide national coordination and enhance cooperation between various regional and national networks.
The plan proposed the following (the draft full plan is here):
- Establishment of a government managed national marine animal stranding response program that sets the guiding principles and best practices for regional stranding response actions including training requirements, identification of nationally recognised labs for processing samples, data reporting, sharing, and data archival in a nationally accessible database.
- Recognition of regional stranding networks as ‘official responders’ with a 5-year authorisation to collect data from stranded specimens. Regional stranding networks need to have trained personnel, volunteer personnel and experts (veterinary professionals, biologists) on board. Regional operations can include a collection of non-government and/or government groups or a single entity with the capacity to execute a response plan.
- The network can be expanded to include sea turtles, sea birds, and sharks depending on expertise.
- Emphasis on data sharing and reporting between regional groups and between regional networks and the national entity.
- Emphasis on producing peer-reviewed reports and publications or reports for public dissemination
- Development of a marine mammal action plan: Stranded animals indicate broader problems within the marine (includes the coasts and estuarine habitats) ecosystem. It is therefore, important to promote and advocate research on marine mammals that is cross-disciplinary, comprehensive, and collaborative. Without understanding the biology, behaviour, and effects of natural and man-made stressors on wild marine mammal populations, it is difficult to prescribe remedial measures solely on the basis of stranded animals.
Towards a stranding response program
Today, when an animal is found on the beach, there is no clear and structured mechanism for reporting and initiating a response. Response actions start from the time a stranded animal is reported to successfully disposing off the carcass or releasing/euthanising an animal.
Responding to a stranding is akin to emergency disaster management. There is no time to seek permissions, let unskilled professionals make decisions, argue about jurisdictions or make unilateral decisions without expert advice. Instead, we need trained responders who can operate methodically and calmly in a tense situation. During such events, law enforcement authorities need to be flexible and rely on expert advice and provide the necessary security support for ensuring that both animal and human safety is not compromised. Communicators with media skills should be available to answer public questions and keep people informed to diffuse any potential outbursts or unruly reactions.
Marine animals such as whales and dolphins have sweeping legislation protecting them in India. However, protecting an animal on paper does not imply that the animal is protected from various human and natural environmental stressors. Marine and terrestrial biodiversity require conservation that relies on sound science. Science is the bedrock on which conservation decisions can be made with confidence. At the same time, scientists cannot operate in a vacuum and without intellectual exchange. Collaborative and open partnerships between government, academia and non-governmental groups is vital for success. Emphasis on scientific excellence, honesty and transparency is critical, which can only be achieved by releasing the results in a timely fashion to the public after review.
It is easy to propose a structure but vastly difficult to implement it. Still, the important thing is to recognise that we need a structure for coordinating marine animal stranding response. The Indian government has to strategically invest in developing a national framework with insights from a variety of national and international personnel with experience in such matters. The strawman plan presented here covers many essential elements of a stranding response network, which can improved or vastly modified. But such a framework must be rooted in efficiency and transparency. It cannot be a bureaucratic nightmare for well-meaning researchers with expertise to move heaven and earth to get an authorisation, nor should it be a nepotism driven environment, where only the favoured get priority.
A fair and accountable system with maximum coordination and cooperation is a must.
Additionally, without funding a structure such as this cannot be operational. Initial and sustained investment is necessary for stranding networks to exist and operate. Funding allocation can be competitively awarded to credible organisations or network of organisations with experts, trained responders, and ability to establish volunteer networks. The key is to begin small and to set tangible goals, which can be expanded based on experience and lessons learned. Time to get started!
Mridula Srinivasan is a marine ecologist with the US National Marine Fisheries Service, Maryland. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect NMFS policy.