The South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network (SCMMSN) is administered by Coastal Carolina University (CCU), in cooperation with the Marine Mammal Research Program at NOAA’s Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research (CCEHBR) and the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The network relies on a large number of highly dedicated and qualified volunteers and veterinarians who assist CCEHBR and CCU personnel with stranding response throughout the state. Logistic support is also provided by personnel from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and coastal municipalities and state parks. CCEHBR personnel respond to the majority of strandings in the state and perform most of the post-mortem analyses. The activities of the SCMMSN are supported by the NOAA John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program, and by CCU and CCEHBR.
The goals of the SCMMSN are:
- To minimize the pain and suffering of live-stranded animals.
- To minimize the risk of beached stranded animals to public safety and health.
- To derive the maximum scientific and educational benefits from stranded animals by establishing baseline data.
- To promote good public relations during stranding events by providing accurate information and a timely response to stranding events.
At Coastal Carolina University, participation in the stranding network also provides valuable experience for students in the Department of Marine Science, the Coastal Marine and Wetland Studies Graduate Program, and the Burroughs and Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies.
Why respond to marine mammal strandings?
Marine mammals that strand alive or die and wash up on beaches provide valuable and sometimes unique information concerning their distribution, relative abundance, anatomy and physiology, diseases and life history. This information can improve our ability to manage and care for marine mammals themselves, as well as marine ecosystems and human health. Many would argue that we have a moral obligation to assist distressed or suffering animals that may strand alive, and for many people, a stranding is the only time they will ever see a marine mammal up close and thus represents an opportunity to learn about and develop an interest in the welfare of marine mammal populations.
Live strandings in our state are typically individual animals that are sick or dying. Rehabilitation efforts have generally been unsuccessful with such animals, so South Carolina does not have a marine mammal rehabilitation facility. Nonetheless, researchers are able to gather a wealth of information from stranding trends, necropsies of dead animals, and analysis of tissues. In some cases, stranding patterns may offer clues to the status of marine mammal populations and serve as indicators of the health of marine ecosystems. Studies of stranded animals help assess and monitor the effects of environmental contaminants such as chlorinated hydrocarbons, PCBs and heavy metals or naturally occurring biotoxins. Information from stranded animals that are found tangled in lost and discarded fishing gear, or showing signs of previous entanglement, can assist with monitoring and managing interactions between marine mammals and commercial and recreational fishing and boating operations.
Strandings of dolphins, whales, and seals in South Carolina are regulated under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Handling of these animals, either alive or dead, is prohibited under the MMPA, but exceptions are permitted under Section 109(h) for government officials (state, county or municipality) acting in the course of their duties and for other authorized persons with Stranding Agreements (SA) under Section 112(c) and Section 403. Coastal Carolina University holds the SA for South Carolina and can appoint volunteers to participate in the SCMMSN. Though manatees are also marine mammals that regularly appear in South Carolina waters, they are managed under the US Fish and Wildlife Service and are not covered under the CCU Stranding Agreement, though the SCMMSN would certainly assist with a manatee stranding.