This blog is part of a series of interviews with scientists who are championing marine research in the Gulf of Mexico.
We know there was a very significant increase in the number of marine mammal strandings observed following the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Dr. Ruth H. Carmichael talks to Ocean Conservancy about her work to respond to strandings when they occur, collect data to better understand these strandings and put together public outreach programs to prevent them in the future.
The tan color on this map shows the range of sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico. The colored areas show the chance of sperm whales utilizing this habitat, with red being the highest.
Not quite a new species, but the population of sperm whales in the Gulf is distinctly different from their relatives. So different that last week, in response to a petition from WildEarth Guardians, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it will be taking a closer look at sperm whales in the Gulf of Mexico in order to determine if they should be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Sperm whales across the world are already listed as an endangered species, but this new designation will recognize the Gulf population as a distinct group and protect and monitor it separately from the global population.
There are characteristics of sperm whales in the Gulf that may be sufficient to classify them as a distinct group. Gulf sperm whales do not leave the Gulf and are generally smaller and use different vocalizations (probably learned culturally) than other sperm whales. Gulf sperm whales also face Gulf-specific threats such as oil and gas development, high levels of shipping traffic and noise, potential effects from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and water quality degradation near the mouth of the Mississippi River. As shown on the map above, the area southeast of the Mississippi River Delta is important for sperm whales. The outflow of nutrients from the river, upwelling along the continental slope and eddies from Gulf currents create unique ecological conditions that make this a productive area where sperm whales go to find food and potentially mates.
The BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster harmed communities from Texas to Florida and damaged the Gulf ecosystem from the ocean floor to the surface across a vast swath of waters and shoreline. Restoring these damaged resources will require a comprehensive, Gulf-wide restoration plan that covers coastal environments, blue-water resources and Gulf communities.
Because wildlife like birds, fish and marine mammals move throughout the ecosystem making use of coastal, nearshore and offshore environments, effective restoration requires a holistic approach. For example, restoration efforts for oyster reefs or barrier islands in Texas should complement the work done in Alabama or in Florida so that the full suite of species and habitats can recover.
The state and federal officials responsible for creating such a plan, the Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) Trustees, are making decisions about how to spend the balance of the $1 billion committed by BP for early restoration. The decisions they make about early restoration and about the longer-term restoration program to follow have the potential to pay enormous dividends to the Gulf for generations.
To help the Trustees build an effective plan, a coalition of nonprofit groups, including Ocean Conservancy, has created a portfolio of 39 projects that reflect an integrated and Gulf-wide approach to restoration. Continue reading »
Though your first instinct may be to try and free a marine mammal or sea turtle, entanglement experts strongly urge you to resist this understandably natural impulse. Credit: Fort Meyers Beach Government
This is a follow-up to my original post about helping entangled animals. Readers requested more information about why you shouldn’t try to disentangle marine mammals, as well as more information about helping crustaceans and other smaller animals.
Why shouldn’t I try to help an entangled mammal or sea turtle?
Though your first instinct may be to try and free a marine mammal or sea turtle, entanglement experts strongly urge you to resist this understandably natural impulse because a person without training can seriously hurt both himself and the animal. For example, approaching an entangled seal might scare it back into the water, where it might end up drowning. Also, even if you successfully remove debris from, say, a dolphin, it could have an infection resulting from wounds and may require professional medical attention. In this case, prematurely releasing the animal back into the ocean will endanger its life. Also, many of these animals are strong, heavy, and unpredictable, which is why calling a stranding center nearest you is the best way you can help an animal.