The marine mammal and sea turtle stranding season is near, which means beachgoers could soon come upon seals, porpoises, dolphins, sea turtles and occasionally large whales that have stranded on shore or in shallow coastal waters.
Typically in Delaware, several strandings occur each month through October, though the number of strandings rises at peak times for species such as dolphins and sea turtles.
“In early spring, seals are still present in Delaware, having arrived in late fall. Although normal seal behavior includes coming up on the beach to rest, strandings - usually harbor or harp seals - can occur if the seal is ill or injured,” said DNREC biologist Edna Stetzar. Other species may be encountered this time of year, too. “Harbor porpoises also prefer cooler water temperatures, and strandings of them occur in the late winter to early spring. Sightings of bottlenose dolphins along the coast begin in April, with strandings possible until southward migration begins in the fall,” she said.
Meanwhile, loggerhead sea turtles and occasionally Kemp’s ridley, green and leatherback turtles can be found in Delaware when water temperatures are warm, with most strandings occurring between May and October, she said. “In addition, large whales, which typically undertake coastal migrations in spring and fall, may occasionally strand in Delaware,” Stetzar noted.
To respond to these strandings, DNREC’s Division of Fish and Wildlife maintains a public-private contractual partnership with the Marine Education, Research and Rehabilitation Institute, a nonprofit, volunteer-based organization based in Lewes. The Division of Fish and Wildlife recently awarded MERR a two-year, $100,000 grant for its volunteers to be first responders and rescuers when a marine stranding is reported. The grant funds were secured from the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“MERR and their volunteers have worked with Division of Fish and Wildlife biologists for more than a decade on responding to marine animal strandings,” said Division of Fish and Wildlife Director David Saveikis. “This partnership puts public funding to work for the benefit of wildlife conservation and helps with an enhanced understanding of these marine species. DNREC recognizes and appreciates MERR and its volunteers for helping us meet our responsibility to provide stewardship of these public-trust marine animals.”
According to NOAA, strandings occur when marine mammals or sea turtles swim or float into shore and become "beached" or stuck in shallow water. The cause is often unknown, but may include disease, parasite infestation, harmful algal blooms, injuries due to ship strikes or fishery entanglements, pollution exposure, trauma and starvation. Strandings also are known to occur following unusual weather or oceanographic events. While the majority of stranded animals are found dead, some animals strand alive. In a limited number of cases, these individuals are transported to regional rehabilitation centers for care. In rare cases, successfully rehabilitated animals are returned to the wild.
In Delaware, live animals are occasionally found and rescues of them attempted. In one recent rare and unique case, DNREC biologists and MERR volunteers worked together to rescue a clutch of federally-threatened and state-endangered green sea turtle eggs, a successful effort led by DNREC that produced eight hatchlings eventually released into North Carolina coastal waters in late 2011 and early 2012. In more common cases, deceased animals such as dolphins, sea turtles or even large whales are found and provide opportunities for scientific study and public education.
What to do in case of a stranding:
• Report strandings immediately.
• Do not move dead animals from stranding site.
• Do not touch or attempt to return live animals to the water.
• Observe only from a distance - stranded animals stress easily and can die as a result.
Marine strandings - including porpoises, seals, dolphins, whales and sea turtles - should be reported as soon as possible to MERR by calling 302-228-5029. Sea turtle nesting should be reported directly to the Division of Fish and Wildlife at 302-739-4580.
For more information on Delaware’s marine mammal and turtle stranding programs, call the Division of Fish and Wildlife, Wildlife Section, at 302-739-9912.