GALVESTON – Dolphins that beach themselves on a Texas shoreline can be a fairly common sight — about 130 to 150 strandings occur every year in Texas — and the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network 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.
Sarah Piwetz, a doctoral student in marine biology at TAMUG, is the assistant stranding coordinator and helps direct fellow students who wish to offer their services.
The Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network was started in 1980 by a group of TAMUG researchers led by Raymond Tarpley. Today it is a stand-alone, nonprofit organization that relies on grants and donations. It 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 said. “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, 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 said. “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 animal 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 among other causes.
If someone encounters a stranded mammal, officials urge that the animal should not be touched, and people 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 said. “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 800-9-MAMMAL and report its location.”
Piwetz said stranded 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 said. “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.”