June 10, 2014

Texas A&M-Galveston Students Ready To Help With Marine Strandings

Dolphins that beach themselves on a Texas shoreline can be a fairly common sight – about 130-150 “strandings” occur every year in Texas – and the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network (TMMSN) is the organization that rescues and recovers them. A team of Texas A&M University at Galveston volunteers is ready to offer assistance when needed.

The students help the TMMSN, the state’s go-to organization that handles marine mammals that wash up on the beach.  Sarah Piwetz, a doctoral student in marine biology at Texas A&M-Galveston, is the Assistant Stranding Coordinator and she helps coordinate fellow students who wish to offer their services.

Texas A&M Galveston students Sarah Piwetz (at right)  and Lindsey Godlove assist the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network critical care team volunteers with a live dolphin recovery

Texas A&M Galveston students Sarah Piwetz (at right) and Lindsey Godlove assist the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network critical care team volunteers with a live dolphin recovery. (Photo: TMMSN)

The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network was started in 1980 by a group of Texas A&M-Galveston researchers led by Raymond Tarpley, but today it is a stand-alone, non-profit organization that relies on grants and donations and works with several state agencies, such as Texas Parks and Wildlife.

“This is the best hands-on experience many students here will ever get,” Piwetz explains.

“It’s a great way to learn about various forms of marine life and see the steps taken when a stranding has happened.  Many students here are very eager to help however they can.”

Volunteers help with stranded mammals, which many times means the animal is either dead or close to death by the time it is found.  If the animal is still alive, it is taken from the beach and placed in a rehab pool, and blood is drawn to determine if it is sick.

“This is when many volunteers are needed because someone needs to stay with the animal 24 hours a day until it can recover,” Piwetz says.

“There is a Critical Care Team that has advanced training and they take shifts during the first 72-hour time period when the animal is in a critical period of stabilization.”

Almost always, the animals involved are bottlenose dolphins, which are frequently seen in Texas waters.  But strandings can also involve large and small whales, and manatees.

Reasons for stranding include illness (most often a bacterial or viral infections), wounds from a boat collision, weather conditions, fishing hooks and lines, toxins in the water, newborns separated from their mother and other causes.

Texas A&M-Galveston students (from left to right) Sarah Piwetz, Scott Hall and Cindy Patino prepare to examine a dead stranded bottlenose dolphin

Texas A&M-Galveston students (from left to right) Sarah Piwetz, Scott Hall and Cindy Patino prepare to examine a dead stranded bottlenose dolphin (Photo: TMMSN)

If someone encounters a stranded mammal, officials urge that the animal should be not be touched and persons should never try to return it to the sea. “It can re-strand if it’s placed back in the water, which makes our rescue effort, and their recovery, much more difficult,” Piwetz says.

“If it appears to be dry, it is important to pour some water on it (but be sure to avoid the blowhole). Anyone finding a stranded animal – whether it is dead or alive – should call the emergency number at 1-800-9-MAMMAL and report its location.”

She adds that such animals are protected by law under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

“Stranding can occur at any time, but most seem to happen from December to April,” Piwetz adds.  “But this time of year, reports of strandings do come in.  We once took 13 calls in just one day.  That’s why we need people to help as volunteers.”

Visit the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network for more information.

Click here to learn about emergency situations.

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Media contact:  Keith Randall, News & Information Services, at (979) 845-4644

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