UF to form new aquatic animal stranding network
Funded through a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the University of Florida is building a network that will respond to situations involving stranded aquatic animals in the nearby coastal areas that include Levy, Dixie and Taylor counties.
“These animals include dolphins, whales and manatees,” said Dr. Mike Walsh, of UF’s Aquatic Animal Health Program. “The goal for these funds was to provide a dedicated response mechanism throughout the Gulf of Mexico, so UF is one of a number of stranding organizations in the Southeast Gulf region with a presence near the Gulf to be funded.”
He added that to do this work, UF also has a stranding agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service that allows the university’s stranding team to handle and intervene with animals that are in trouble on the coast.
“We are part of a national network — the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program — that covers the U.S. shoreline as well as part of the Caribbean, Alaska and Hawaii,” Walsh said. “This is a first for UF.”
Each of the organizations along the coast of Florida all support each other when there are problems such as individual injury and animal recovery, mass strandings and unusual die-offs of the mammal species, Walsh said. He added that the stranding network’s emphasis is to determine why animals come ashore and covers natural disease processes, toxins that may impact animals that are in the environment naturally that affect the animals as well as humans, and disasters such as oil spills.
The program will work closely with the Cedar Key Dolphin Project, which has studied dolphin populations in the area, as well as the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the UF-IFAS.
“It is a response program, but also a research program, and we work like detectives to sort through the issues and find the cause of the problems,” Walsh said.
Walsh said the program is now building partnerships with the Fish and Wildlife Service for support space and will have a biologist housed with the Nature Coast Biological Station in Cedar Key and the Lower Suwannee refuge.
“All of these groups play a key role in starting a new program to help the marine mammals and ultimately us,” Walsh said. “We have hired a stranding biologist, Mackenzie Russell, who is taking the lead on setting up the relationships with the local people that have the eyes on the water and will be our partners.
“The Nature Coast Biological Station and its director, Mike Allen, will play a pivotal role in our efforts, providing logistical support for outreach and facilities to help the program reach its goals and become the benchmark for other organizations,” Walsh said. “We are indebted to Jack Payne and those at UF/IFAS who share our vision for working with these species and their environment with a scientific approach.”
Walsh added that the current focus is on building a volunteer network and on addressing infrastructure needs.
“We will be appealing for local populations to help us as we can’t do this on our own,” he said. “It is a true partnership with the citizens of the counties and the agencies.”