[MARMAM] Update from NOAA re Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill and cetaceans

Laura Engleby Laura.Engleby at noaa.gov
Wed Jul 21 14:46:57 PDT 2010

Dear MARMAM subscribers,

NOAA Fisheries Service would like to provide an update on cetacean 
science and conservation activities being implemented by NOAA and 
partners in the Gulf of Mexico that are related to the Deepwater Horizon 
(DWH) BP oil spill event.  These activities include: (1) ensuring 
effective stranding response and data collection by enhancing 
capabilities with multiple partners along the northern Gulf coast; (2) 
conducting synoptic aerial assessments surveys for marine mammals and 
sea turtles;  (3) conducting vessel based assessments of bottlenose 
dolphins in coastal estuaries in the impacted area; (4) conducting 
visual health assessment and monitoring of dolphins in high risk areas; 
(5)* *collecting data to determine impacts on the Endangered Species Act 
(ESA)-listed sperm whale and other protected marine mammals in the Gulf 
and (6) ensuring information is available in a timely manner. 

*Ensuring effective stranding response *

NOAA Fisheries Service and USFWS are integral parts of the Wildlife 
Branch of the Unified Command in both Houma, LA, and Mobile, AL, which 
actively coordinate response to any dead, stranded, or live cetacean or 
manatee in distress.  Our partners include all local state agencies and 
authorized organizations from the Southeast U.S. Marine Mammal Stranding 
Network.  National Stranding Network members and organizations and other 
non-governmental organizations are also providing expertise and 
personnel to further enhance capabilities throughout the northern Gulf.  
Established protocols and procedures for treating marine wildlife 
impacted by oil have been developed by NOAA and its partners and have 
been adapted to address the particular needs of this event. 

Because of the various research and clean up efforts, there are also 
many individuals making observations along the entire northern Gulf 
coast.  A wildlife hotline for reporting oiled, injured, distressed, or 
dead marine mammals, sea turtles, or birds (866-557-140), has been 
established and is working well; all reports are documented, and/or 
investigated by the appropriate wildlife response personnel.  The 
current spill response area is from the Louisiana/Texas border to the 
Apalachicola area of Florida.  The spill response area is evaluated 
based on the trajectories of the oil, the biology of the species, and 
the longer term outlooks.  Three primary de-oiling/rehabilitation 
facilities have been established (LA, MS, and FL).

Between April 30, 2010 and July 20, 2010, there have been 67 total 
verified marine mammal stranding events; 61 were dead stranded dolphins, 
5 were live stranded dolphins and one dead floating sperm whale 
offshore.  No manatee strandings have been reported within the spill 
response area.  For details on marine mammal stranding data visit:  
http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/oilspill.htm.  This website is an 
excellent resource and includes maps of stranding locations, species, 
oil versus not oiled, numbers of animals necropsied, and other 
informaton regarding marine mammals, sea turtles and the DWH BP oil 
spill event. 

Prior to the oil spill, this year (2010) has already had unusually high 
stranding rates for bottlenose dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico.  
In the months of March and April, bottlenose dolphin strandings were at 
or above average stranding rates in the Florida panhandle, Alabama, 
Mississippi, and Louisiana.  NOAA was in the process of initiating 
consultation with the Working Group for Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality 
Events at the time of the DWH BP oil spill, to determine whether a UME 
should be declared.  That consultation was not completed as it was 
overcome by the actual spill itself. 

*Synoptic aerial surveys for assessing marine mammals and sea turtles in 
the region of the DWH oil spill incident*

As part of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment pre-assessment 
efforts, on 28 April, NOAA initiated aerial surveys to assess the marine 
mammal and sea turtle species occurring within areas likely to be 
affected by oil from the DWH BP oil spill, including coastal and 
continental shelf waters between central Louisiana and Pensacola Bay, 
Florida.  These surveys continue as oil has impacted nearly this entire 
region to various degrees.  The goal of the surveys is to monitor the 
near-term changes in marine mammal and sea turtle spatial distribution 
and abundance in response to the oil. The flights are conducted from a 
NOAA Twin Otter along predetermined track lines that cover the coastal 
and adjacent continental shelf waters.  The surveys are conducted at 600 
feet and a speed of 100 knots.  Flight duration ranges from 4-6 hours. 
 All marine mammal and sea turtles sightings are recorded along with the 
occurrence and appearance of any oil.  Data collected from the Twin 
Otter surveys will allow quantitative estimation of the abundance and 
spatial distribution of marine mammals and sea turtles within the 
surveyed area.  These data can be used to infer broadscale changes in 
population size or shifts in spatial distribution and thereby directly 
quantify potential impacts of the incident on these protected species.  
These surveys cover the entire study area twice a month and will 
continue through August 2010, and potentially longer.

*Vessel based assessments of bottlenose dolphins in coastal estuaries. *

Soon after the DWH BP oil spill, NOAA also initiated vessel based 
assessments of bottlenose dolphins in several coastal areas where oil 
impacts were anticipated.  The ongoing assessments include sampling of 
dolphin tissues to assess contaminant concentrations and examine stock 
structure and photo-identification surveys for mark-recapture analysis 
to document changes in abundance and examine survival and fecundity. 
 The researchers also monitor for signs of distress or abnormal 
behavior.  Four areas have been targeted for this research- Chandeleur 
Sound, LA, Barataria Bay, LA, Mississippi Sound, MS and AL.  A fourth 
site along the Florida panhandle (St. Joseph Bay) was added in 
collaboration with Chicago Zoological Society.  These areas were chosen 
based on forecasted oil trajectories, and/or because of existing 
historical, long-term information on the bottlenose dolphin stocks from 
previous studies.      

*Visual health assessment and monitoring of coastal dolphins*

Teams are conducting marine mammal behavioral and visual health 
assessment response surveys in high-risk areas to monitor dolphins for 
potential signs of distress and provide rapid notification to the 
wildlife hotline should such distressed animals are detected.  Although 
severely limited in our ability to move dolphins out of their natural 
habitats in response to the oil spill, NOAA and partners are doing 
everything we can to help animals if they are in distress and learn as 
much as possible about how dolphins respond to and might be affected by 
an oil spill.  Thus far, there have not been any confirmed bottlenose 
dolphins in distress or showing compromised health.

*Large-vessel surveys to determine impacts on endangered and other 
protected Marine Mammals in the Gulf*

This NOAA ship-based study focuses on sperm whales and other marine 
mammals in the deep-water habitats of the north-central Gulf of Mexico 
impacted by the oil spill.  Objectives include: (1) documenting 
incidence of whale and dolphin exposure to oil; (2) documenting sperm 
whale and Bryde's whale distribution and residence patterns related to 
oil and other factors; (3) developing information on population dynamics 
and stock structure of sperm whales and Bryde's whales; and (4) 
collecting habitat information and characterizing water column 
productivity and prey resources.  Methods include photo-documentation, 
visual and long-term passive acoustic monitoring (utilizing HARP and 
MARU), satellite tagging, and tissue biopsies. The satellite tagging is 
being conducted in partnership with Oregon State University.  The 
passive acoustic monitoring efforts are being conducted in partnership 
with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Cornell University. The 
study areas include the deep waters of the north-central Gulf of Mexico, 
focusing on the high-use areas for sperm whales, Bryde's whales and 
other marine mammals.  **

*Ensuring information is available online*

The following websites include valuable information to keep interested 
parties informed about NOAA efforts and all other aspects of the oil spill:

This website focuses on protected species, specifically marine mammals 
and sea turtles.  Users can find excel data sheets, maps, and other 
current information about marine mammals and the oil spill as well as 
NOAA activities. 
We strongly recommend bookmarking this page and referring to it 
frequently for marine mammal updates.

This is the official site of the Unified Command Center for the DWH BP 
oil spill.

This is the official federal portal for the Deepwater Horizon BP oil 
spill response and recovery. This site provides the public with 
information on the response, current operations, news and updates, how 
to file a claim and obtain other assistance, and links to federal, state 
and local partners.

This website, updated daily, contains information about Federal 
fisheries closures in the Gulf of Mexico and fact sheets about fish 
stocks, protected resources, and habitat in the Gulf.

This site provides imagery acquired by the NOAA Remote Sensing Division 
of the Gulf Coast following the Deepwater Horizon Incident.

This website provides information about natural resource damage 
assessments conducted by NOAA.

This website provides NOAA images and video related to the oil spill.

The Incident News website provides publicly available information 
related to oil and hazardous material spills, both current and 
historical. It is developed and maintained by NOAA.

Maps and graphics shown here help scientists, managers, and decision 
makers, understand more where the water is going, its properties and how 
they change over time.

Geoplatform integrates the latest data the federal responders have about 
the oil spill's trajectory with fishery area closures, wildlife data and 
place-based Gulf Coast resources--such as pinpointed locations of oiled 
shoreline and current positions of deployed research ships--into one 
customizable interactive map.

Source for NOAA data related to the oil spill.

We hope this information is helpful to everyone and greatly appreciate 
all the incredible help and contributions from the marine mammal community. 
If you have questions, please feel free to contact me 
<mailto:laura.engleby at noaa.gov>.   



Laura K. Engleby
Marine Mammal Branch Chief
Protected Resources Division
NOAA Fisheries Service
Southeast Region
263 13th Ave South
St. Petersburg, FL 33701




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