BAR HARBOR, Maine — Seals, dolphins, sea turtles and whales had a lot of friends in town last week.
The health of these creatures and what kind of contact they have with humans drew several dozen people to Bar Harbor for a regional stranding conference.
The four-day Northeast Region Stranding Network Conference, hosted by Allied Whale, University of New England and the Maine Department of Marine Resources, was aimed at improving ways to help protect marine mammals and turtles. Scientists, students, environmental advocates and members of the public gathered for the conference, most of which was held at the Bar Harbor Club, to exchange information about the prevalence of marine mammals along the coast, the health of the animals, and what kind of threats they might face from human activities.
Sean Todd, a professor at College of the Atlantic and director of the college’s Allied Whale program, said Saturday that the conference helps to serve as a clearinghouse of information for groups that are charged by the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with responding to reports of marine mammals and turtles in trouble. The word “stranding,” he said, is a general term that can apply to any such animal that is out of its normal habitat and is sick, injured, entangled or otherwise stressed.
“It brings all those people together,” Todd said of the conference, which drew attendees from Virginia to Maine. “It’s very much a family atmosphere.”
Besides the hosting groups, other network member organizations with representatives at the conference included the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Blue Hill, the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., New England Aquarium in Boston, Riverhead Foundation in New York and Virginia Aquarium Foundation, among others.
The stranding network held its regular business and board meetings on Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, speakers gave presentations about marine mammal and turtle research and management programs. Saturday and Sunday workshops on sea turtle entanglements and whale necropsies also were part of the conference.
Mendy Garron, marine mammal stranding coordinator for NOAA, said Saturday that the conference helps the agency exchange information with marine mammal research and advocacy groups.
“We have a lot of formal [stranding response] agreements with the groups that are here,” she said.
The conference also helps NOAA learn about nonprofit marine mammal programs that might benefit from NOAA grants, she said.
“We establish priorities for that because it’s a very competitive process,” Garron said.
Todd said that in addition to sharing scientific findings, the conference allows groups to share information about how they respond to strandings. Not only is it important to learn why an endangered whale may have died, but groups that conduct necropsies also need to know how best to dispose of the carcass when they are done, he said. One presentation Saturday weighed the benefits of composting whale carcasses against burying them.
“Cutting up whales is particularly problematic,” Todd said. “It’s very messy.”
Sharing information about procedures helps ensure that the best known practices are being used, Todd said, and provides NOAA with uniform data that it can use to determine how to manage populations of endangered and protected marine species.
“That’s not going to happen unless we standardize the protocols,” Todd said.
Susan Barco with the Virginia Aquarium Foundation gave a presentation Saturday about fine, high-strength braided fishing twine that presents a hazard to marine mammals. The small, lightweight braided line poses a more serious entanglement threat than traditional monofilament line, she said.
Barco said her group received a report of a dolphin that became entangled in this type of line, which nearly amputated its dorsal fin and caused deep, sawlike cuts to its fluke. Three weeks after it was spotted, the entangled dolphin was stranded and then euthanized, she said.
After her talk, Barco stressed that she hopes to work with the fishing industry to find ways they can cooperate in helping to prevent such entanglements.
Some speakers on Saturday also addressed the issue of ocean energy development, either as wind turbines or underwater tidal turbines.
Dr. Jim Gilbert of the University of Maine said underwater turbines could affect food sources and noise levels for marine mammals, but Erin Summers with DMR said what the effects might be is unclear.
“We don’t know what the acoustic footprint is going to be like or how it’s going to affect marine animals in the area,” Summers said.