Into the Belly of the Whale: Preparing for Large Marine Animal Evidence Collection

Two weeks ago Mike, Scott, Greg, and I traveled to Shepherdstown, West Virginia for the National Marine Animal Health and Stranding Network Conference. In addition to three days of excellent lectures and wetlabs that provided state of the art training on the rescue and rehabilitation of stranded marine mammals & sea turtles, this conference was unique because it was the first to include a half – day drill on all aspects of oiled wildlife response, including data collection for Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA).

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The National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website (http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/nrda.html) defines NRDA as “… the legal process that federal agencies like NOAA, together with the states and Indian tribes, use to evaluate the impacts of oil spills, hazardous waste sites, and ship groundings on natural resources both along the nation’s coast and throughout its interior.”

This means that during oil spills, OWCN, our Member Organizations, and Affiliated Agencies need to collect evidence from the animals that we rescue not only for the investigation and response needs, but for post-spill assessment activities as well. For live marine animals, this typically means taking photographs of the animal before it is collected and obtaining external samples (such as hair or skin swabs) that can be tested for petroleum contamination as soon after capture as it is safe to do so.

OWCN personnel collecting external petroleum sample from elephant seal during the Refugio Incident near Santa Barbara. Photo by Gyle Uyehara.

OWCN personnel collecting external petroleum sample from elephant seal during the Refugio Incident near Santa Barbara. Photo by Gayle Uyehara.

When animals are found dead, in addition to photographs and external samples, internal samples are needed. For animals that are small enough to transport, full necropsies (animal postmortem examinations) are performed in a laboratory at a Primary Care Center (or Processing Facility if set up in a different location). Often hundreds of samples are collected including internal organs, blood, bile, urine, gastrointestinal tract contents, any abnormal tissues, etc. Often each type of sample must be collected in triplicate and preserved by several methods (formalin, frozen, for petroleum testing, culture, etc.). It is quite a task to just complete a necropsy, much less document and keep track of all the samples.

Field Processing team simulating performing a field necropsy at the National Marine Animal Health and Stranding Conference.

Field Processing team simulating performing a field necropsy at the National Marine Animal Health and Stranding Conference.

When animals are too large to move, such as is the case with baleen whales, elephant seals, and large sea turtles or seal lions, the necropsy must be performed by a Field Processing team on the beach where the animals stranded. As you can imagine, there can be many difficulties performing such a delicate and involved procedure on a windy beach, particularly if the weather is inclement. One of the biggest obstacles is getting all the required equipment to the site. In addition to all the tools needed for the sampling, there is the equipment that is needed to get access to the inside of the whale and to keep personnel safe.

Field Processing team discussing their approach to a field necropsy of simulated dead whale at the National Marine Animal Health and Stranding Conference.

Field Processing team discussing their approach to a field necropsy of simulated dead whale at the National Marine Animal Health and Stranding Conference.

To meet this need in California, the OWCN has just completed stocking a large marine animal necropsy trailer that is ready to roll at a moments notice. All the equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to necropsy any marine mammal including a large whale is present in the trailer.

Equipment stores in the new OWCN large marine animal necropsy trailer.

Equipment stores in the new OWCN large marine animal necropsy trailer.

While we hope that a large whale never dies or strands during an oil spill, if it happens, the OWCN and our partners will be ready to collect the evidence needed to determine if petroleum was a factor in the animal’s demise. Also because so little is known about the biology of large marine mammals, the precious information gained by performing these necropsies will help us to better understand marine mammal health, thus providing us with the opportunity to improve care, treatments and conservation efforts for living marine animals.

Labeling for one of many containers of equipment for the new OWCN large marine animal necropsy trailer.

Labeling for one of many containers of equipment for the new OWCN large marine animal necropsy trailer.

–Nancy

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