By JOHN LEANING
FALMOUTH - Tragic as they are, fall and winter mass strandings of marine mammals are a normal, almost annual occurrence on Cape Cod shores. Together with parts of New Zealand and Australia, Cape Cod is notorious for historical and present-day mass strandings of whales, dolphins and other marine mammals. In hopes of improving both the response times of would-be rescuers and the ability to save some stranded animals, a new group has been formed by a coalition of Cape-based animal welfare groups.
The Cape Cod Stranding Network filed its incorporation papers with the state last month and is awaiting its federal tax-exempt status. It will be up and running in time for the approaching stranding season, pledged corporate president Dan Morast, who is also executive director of the Falmouth-based International Wildlife Coalition. "As president, I can tell you we feel great pressure to get moving for this stranding season. There will be a telephone stranding hot line for Cape Cod," Morast said. "Within the Northeast region from Maine to Maryland, Cape Cod is ground zero for strandings," he said. Last November, 10 common dolphins stranded on Old Silver Beach. Three were successfully pushed back out into the water, but seven died.
That was followed in January by a stranding of 70 or more white-sided dolphins in various places in Wellfleet, the largest such event in several decades. All the animals either died naturally or were euthanized to end their suffering. "Individually as groups we felt we should do better in our own backyard," he said. Besides the IWC, founding members of the corporation are the National Marine Life Center in Bourne, the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouthport, the Humane Society of the United States, which has a wildlife rehabilitation center in Barnstable, and the New Hampshire-based Pegasus Foundation, formed by animal rights activist and Orleans resident Barbara Birdsey.
The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies has not yet joined the corporation, but Morast said it is a "supporting organization." In addition to Morast as president, other officers of the new corporation are IFAW's Cindy Milburn, treasurer, and the Marine Life Center's Sally Riggs, clerk. Michael Moore, a marine biologist and research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who is also a veterinarian, has been involved in the planning stages of the corporation. Moore and others are drafting a proposal to the New England Aquarium, which would permit the Cape-based corporation to handle marine mammals under a letter of agreement the aquarium already has with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Under federal law, only groups with those "letters of agreement" may handle marine mammals. "We are trying to work with them. We have the same common goal in saving stranded animals," said aquarium spokeswoman Sue Knapp. "We are in the beginning stages of determining how best to all work together under NMFS guidelines," she said. "The whole focus needs to be on the animals. By having the response more locally based, we can improve the chances of the animals, and improve how they are handled," said Sally Riggs, who is project director, and vice president of the board of directors, of the Marine Life Center.
Besides responding to mass strandings, Morast said staff of the new corporation - which eventually will include a full-time veterinarian and support personnel - would coordinate data collection and other studies, including necropsies, or animal autopsies, to help scientists better understand why marine mammals strand. Morast said the corporation will have an annual budget of about $100,000.
The intent is to generate more information to help scientists learn more about the medical and physiological consequences to these animals when they strand, how to best treat marine mammals that have beached, and what scientists and others can do to prevent other strandings. Morast said the corporation plans extensive meetings with local Cape officials and other animal groups to develop a support system that is as cooperative and inclusive as possible.
The corporation will rent office space at the Marine Life Center, which is actively working on a fund-raising effort that ultimately will include constructing rescue and rehabilitation pools where stranded marine mammals can be cared for prior to release back into the wild.