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News | Feb. 25, 2009

Marine Mammal 911: Navy Furthers Commitment to Marine Mammals Through Stranding Response Plans

By Tracey Moriarty Chief of Naval Operations Environmental Readiness Division

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Navy finalized January 2009 marine-mammal-stranding response plans for three of the Navy's largest training areas: the Hawaii Range Complex, the Southern California Range Complex, and the Atlantic Fleet Active Sonar Training area. 

Similar stranding response plans will be developed for the Navy's 10 remaining "at-sea" major training ranges and operating areas. 

Every year approximately 3,500 marine mammals strand on U.S. coasts. In many cases, the causes of these strandings can not be determined, though common causes include disease, fishery entanglements, and ship strikes. 

"We are looking forward to working with the National Marine Fisheries Service on implementing these stranding plans. We want to know why strandings occur," said John Quinn, deputy director of the Chief of Naval Operations Environmental Readiness Division. "Understanding the causes will help scientists understand how these unfortunate events can be prevented or reduced in number," said Quinn.

Though the stranding response plans were developed to meet the unique requirements of the specific training areas, they do share certain features:

* If Navy personnel find a stranded marine mammal, the Navy will contact the National Marine Fisheries Service as soon as possible and provide any available information about the animal's location and condition. 

* Upon request, the Navy will help the National Marine Fisheries Service and local marine mammal stranding networks respond to a marine mammal stranding. 

* If a stranded marine mammal is discovered during a major training event, the National Marine Fisheries Service will determine whether the stranding qualifies as an "uncommon stranding event" (e.g., two or more stranded marine mammals that are not mother and calf). For uncommon stranding events involving a live or freshly dead marine mammal, the Navy will temporarily cease any use of active sonar or explosives to avoid exposing stranded or injured marine mammals to additional stress. 

* The Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service will also develop agreements that enable the Navy to assist National Marine Fisheries Service investigations of uncommon stranding events. Navy assistance could include transportation of marine mammals or response personnel via aircraft, boat or truck; use of Navy property for necropsies or burial; assistance with aerial surveys; and other support as available. 

When asked whether the stranding response plans place an unreasonable burden on Navy Sailors and Marines, Tom Fetherston, special assistant for marine science at the Chief of Naval Operations Environmental Readiness Division, responded he did not think so.

"Many of the requirements listed in the stranding response plans are just codifying the types of things that the Navy has already been asked to do on a case-by-case basis. These plans simply provide a consistent process," said Fetherston. 

"We are hopeful that having a consistent process will enable scientists to obtain additional and better data to assist in marine mammal research, which is a major priority for the Navy," said Fetherston.

The Navy provides a significant amount of funding and support for marine mammal research. For example, the Navy provided $26 million in fiscal year 2008 alone, and has funded about $100 million over the past five years. The Navy will continue to fund ongoing marine mammal research, and is planning to coordinate long term monitoring and studies of marine mammals on established ranges and operating areas.