Marine Mammal Strandings: What to Do and Not Do

Rosie Seaton

Join the Shaw Institute on Tuesday, August 8 for its fourth lecture of the 2023 season with Rosemary (“Rosie”) Seton, Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator with the Allied Whale program at the College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor.

Seton, who has been with Allied Whale for 25 years, oversees the stranding response network along the coast of Maine from the Canadian border to Rockland.

“We started our stranding response efforts because, initially, there was no one else to do it. We were the only marine mammal group in Maine for many years and strandings were ‘who wants to go out and look at this seal,’” said Seton.  With grants and funding, Seton now manages an active, wide-ranging network of staff, students, and volunteers. She notes that southern Maine gets upwards of 300 calls a year for stranded animals, which can include seals, whales, dolphins, and porpoises. But with a third less population and few sandy beaches, her team may get a third or even a quarter of that volume. 

Authorized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries to respond to marine mammal emergencies and strandings, Seton’s job is to assess the health of stranded animals and collect those that are in danger or sick. If an animal has died, a necropsy may be conducted on site to collect tissue samples that can help determine cause of death. Seton is quick to point out that a stranded animal can represent a danger to people and pets, and response must be rapid and managed properly.

An important scientific component of Seton’s work has made Allied Whale a valued partner for the Shaw Institute. “Since our first marine-mammal-related paper in 2005, the Institute has published 12 peer-reviewed papers plus numerous reports and conference papers using toxicology data from COA strandings,” said Dr. Charlie Rolsky, executive director and senior research scientist. “We have tissue samples from COA for 139 individual marine mammals, and out of nearly 1,000 tissues samples in our freezers, close to half are from COA strandings.” This summer, the Institute’s three Colby College interns also participated in a necropsy at Allied Whale as part of their training.

What has made strandings more manageable? Seton is quick to point to trained volunteers and advances in digital photography and texting – something that Allied Whale has turned into a great advantage with its photo-ID techniques. Publishing its first North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog in 1977 with 120 individual whales, it can now identify over 10,000 humpback whales in the North Atlantic. 

What is needed now, however, is to better communicate to the public what to do if they come across a stranded animal. “We need to reach people more broadly. NOAA works hard to get out messages about strandings and what to do. But despite signage, social media, and printed material, we still get people who touch a seal pup, poke it with a stick, drag it into the water, or pour water on it thinking that will help,” said Seton.

She added, “We wear many hats here. From internships, research programs, summer studies for kids, public speaking, school programs, amazing volunteers who report and transport strandings, and more, we work hard year-round to keep both marine mammals and people safe.”

Learn more about the do’s and don’ts of marine mammal strandings. Join us on Tuesday, August 8, 6-7pm. The event is free and open to the public. Doors open at 5pm with light refreshments, courtesy of Blue Hill Wine Shop, followed by the lecture at 6pm. 

A Zoom link is available on the Shaw Institute website for those unable to attend in person but wishing to watch the lecture live and participate in the Q&A. 

MEDIA CONTACT: Tod Hardin, Marketing & Communications, 

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About the Shaw Institute Environmental Speaker Series

A signature program now in its 20th year, the Environmental Speaker Series brings national and global experts and thought leaders to the Blue Hill Research Center (and online) to hear updates and engage in dialogue on critical environmental and human health concerns in a public forum setting. Each talk is followed by a Q&A session. The lectures are free and open to the public.

About the Institute

The Shaw Institute is a 501(c)3 nonprofit scientific research organization based in Maine and founded in 1990 by ecotoxicologist Dr. Susan Shaw. Our mission is to discover and expose environmental threats to people and wildlife through innovative science, and to engage in local and global partnerships to improve human and ecological health.