By Lauren Rust for The Island Connection
Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network, a nonprofit organization, is now the primary organization authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service to respond to sick, injured and dead marine mammals. The previous permit holder was Rob Young with Coastal Carolina University, who will continue to partner in the northern part of the state. The area includes 187 miles of primary South Carolina coastline, multiple public beaches, tidal rivers, bays, sounds and extensive salt marsh systems. LMMN conducts this recovery and data collection work in partnership with the National Ocean Service/Hollings Marine Lab that makes up the South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network. This work is supported by the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant and generous donations from the community. The greater Charleston area alone is home to an estimated 300 resident dolphins with the addition of migrating coastal dolphins and whales. These mammals face numerous threats including crab pot entanglements, boat strikes, ingestion of plastics and other pollutants found in our waters.
Between 2012 and 2014, for example, over 1,600 bottlenose dolphins died along the eastern seaboard (New Jersey to northern Florida) from a viral infection. Recent local analysis using tissue from dolphins found in South Carolina tidal waters has revealed high levels of persistent organic pollutants such as DDT, a widely used pesticides. Since these mammals feed on seafood sources similar to humans (shrimp, fish, squid), data analysis conducted on these stranded mammals are critical to our wellbeing too.
“Reporting and responding to calls for help in a quick and effective manner can make the difference between life and death for a whale or dolphin” observed Lauren Rust, LMMN’s Founder and Executive Director “and the recent disentanglement of a dolphin in Charleston Harbor is a testament to the importance of effective teamwork in these efforts. This dolphin had 10’ of rope wrapped around his tail which required two attempts, including intervention by the Charleston police department, to give this animal another chance at life.” Preservation of marine mammals like dolphins is an important ecotourism component that will leave a powerful lasting impact on South Carolina’s tourism business – a business which attracts over 4 million visitors annually and adds $9 billion to the State’s economy.
“The establishment of LMMN has allowed for the continued collection of samples for contaminant, reproductive, microplastic, disease, human interaction, age, and dietary studies of coastal dolphins that we have been conducting for 30 years in South Carolina” (Wayne McFee, Coastal Marine Mammal Assessments Program, NOAA/NOS). “Learning more about what makes these animals sick or die, also helps us to understand the threats they face, take action to mitigate those risks to their sustainability, and help preserve this precious natural resource.” Ms. Rust went on “Knowing the do’s and don’ts of reporting stranded animals helps our team respond more quickly.” Dolphins are federally protected making it illegal to feed or harass wild dolphins. NOAA recommends boaters stay 50 yards away from marine mammals.
Here are the steps to take if you think you find a sick or dead marine mammal:
• Call the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) wildlife hotline (800- 992-5431) as soon as possible. If possible before you call, take pictures of the stranded mammal and confirm its location using GPS so you can validate the circumstances and where you are located.
• Contact your local beach patrol, town or local police department or call 911.
• Do NOT approach, touch, or attempt to push a stranded marine mammal back into the water, as these animals are wild, and may be sick.
Once this call identifies the stranded mammal, LMMN will be contacted to initiate and coordinate the appropriate response.