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Atlantic Marine Conservation Society Joins NOAA’s Marine Mammal Stranding Response Network

In January 2017, we welcomed a new stranding response partner, Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, to the Greater Atlantic Region’s marine mammal stranding response network. Led by veteran marine animal responder Rob DiGiovanni, the new organization focuses on promoting marine conservation. AMCS is New York’s primary response organization for live large whales and for dead marine animals, including whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea turtles. AMCS also responds to entangled whales and sea turtles, surveys and monitors marine animals populations, and conducts ocean-based outreach and educational programs for the Long Island community.

Staff from AMCS on the beach examining a dead marine mammalsAMCS staff and local authorities respond to stranded marine mammal. Credit: AMCS.

As part of an effort to improve marine mammal stranding response capacity on Long Island, AMCS, Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation teamed together to develop and implement a new statewide plan.

Building on DiGiovanni’s 25 years of experience in marine mammal stranding and response, AMCS has started off with a bang -- in less than 10 months, the young organization has already responded to more than 142 animals, including more than 12 large whales. While there is plenty of interannual variation in large whale strandings, along the entire U.S. East Coast there has been a fairly steady increasing trend in large whale strandings in recent years.

But response and rehabilitation are only part of the story, says DiGiovanni.

Rob DiGiovanni from AMCS and Mendy Garron from NOAA on a Coast Guard vessel searching for the Reynolds Channel whaleRob DiGiovanni and Mendy Garron (NOAA) responding to humpback whale in Reynolds Channel. Credit. USCG.

“We started AMCS to engage the community, to show them that these animals are coming to our waters everyday. They don’t  get much coverage in the news, but they’re here,” he says. “When people see on us the beach and come talk to us, our discussion can make an impact. A few weeks ago, when we responded to a dead bottlenose dolphin on the beach, we saw a woman who talked to us come back from her beach walk carrying balloons and other plastic. She was inspired to do her own beach clean-up!”

In the Beginning

“It all started with a whale watch,” says DiGiovanni.

In the 1990s, DiGiovanni ran his own construction company in eastern Long Island, and didn’t know much about whales or marine life in the coastal waters off his hometown. On a whale watch out of Montauk, he realized that he wasn’t alone -- there was much we didn’t know about these enormous mammals. Fascinated, DiGiovanni closed his construction company, went back to school, and started volunteering at Okeanos, a Long Island nonprofit organization that studied marine mammals and sea turtles. He started as a whale watch naturalist and then, when whale watch season ended, worked with Okeanos to respond to marine mammal and sea turtle strandings, including sea turtle and seal rehabilitation. His construction skills came in handy, particularly his knowledge of swimming pools, as he helped Okeanos build and maintain their tanks. Okeanos eventually hired DiGiovanni, and he has worked in marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation ever since, earning his Master’s degree in applied ecology along the way.

After Okeanos dissolved, DiGiovanni was one of the founding members of Riverhead Foundation, which took over the stranding response and rehabilitation responsibilities. While with Riverhead Foundation, DiGiovanni’s collaborative nature caused him to seek out funding to allow collaboration across the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region’s stranding network to share best practices, improve the science collected from strandings and the outcomes of live strandings, and train new stranding network responders. In the Fall of 2016,  a change in Riverhead’s priorities led to DiGiovanni striking out on his own. 

Focus on Community and Collaboration

With AMCS, DiGiovanni’s vision is to change people’s perceptions of their coastal communities and their responsibilities toward preserving ocean health, while educating people about the many whales, seals, dolphins, and sea turtles that frequent their waters.

“With more than 200 animals, mostly dead, washing up on New York shores annually, strandings are no longer the rare occurrences they were 20 years ago. That makes it more important for people to understand what’s happening in our oceans, and what we can do to prevent injuries and mortalities that are linked to human activity,” says DiGiovanni.

Humpack whale fin above the waterHumpback whale, not the one they were looking for, spotted outside Reynolds Channel. Credit: AMCS.

DiGiovanni recently had the opportunity to put his focus on community participation into action. A young humpback whale turned up in Reynolds Channel, a busy channel inside the barrier island along the South Shore of Long Island that includes the towns of Atlantic Beach, Long Beach, and Point Lookout, New York. For more than a week, boaters reported seeing the whale in the channel, near boats and docks -- definitely an “out of habitat” whale. 

Usually, whales will find their way back out to sea, and although humpback whales have reacted to “herding” attempts, directional herding has not been successful. Like doctors, DiGiovanni and other out-of-habitat responders abide by the “first, do no harm” principle to avoid further stressing or endangering an animal. But sometimes, when the danger outweighs the potential harm, NOAA Fisheries and network responders agree that human intervention is worth trying. 

AMCS monitored the Reynold’s Channel humpback whale for a few days, but became concerned about vessel traffic. Although appropriate prey species occurred in the inshore waterway, he was unconvinced that there was evidence of feeding. In consultation with NOAA FIsheries, DiGiovanni  decided to attempt to herd the whale out of the channel on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.

AMCS's Kim Durham joined forces with Bay Constables to search for the whale. Credit: AMCS.

From past experience, DiGiovanni knew to be prepared to accept offers of help, while balancing the need to ensure that command over the response effort was centralized. He  worked with federal, state, and local government (NOAA Fisheries, New York State Department of

Environmental Conservation, Town of Hempstead Bay Constables, International Fund for Animal Welfare, The US Coast Guard Station Jones Beach, Nassau County Marine Bureau, Nassau County Police Department), as well as with volunteers from Wildlife Conservation Society, Operation Splash, Gotham Whale, and The Nature Conservancy to identify and gather available resources and to plan and implement a herding operation.

Saturday morning at 6 am, before the sun had risen, more than 30 people attended a morning operations meeting, and, with a plan in place, set off to find the whale. After several hours on the water, none of the vessels looking for the whale were able to find it. Even a thorough helicopter search across the inshore waters provided by Nassau County did not locate the whale, though the helicopter did spot several humpbacks on the oceanside of the barrier island. DiGiovanni concluded that it returned to sea on its own -- the best possible outcome.

“I need to say it was an honor and a privilege to be part of this operation, it was an incredible opportunity,” says Artie Raslich, who volunteered to be part of the operation. “I had no idea how much preparation, man hours, and hard work it takes to go from start to finish on a situation like this.”

Roving Responders

AMCS doesn’t have a physical office space yet, instead relying on library meeting rooms for meetings, lectures, and community outreach events.

“We spend most of our time in the field,” says DiGiovanni. “Using the infrastructure that already exists in our communities makes it easier to reach people. Instead of trying to get people from western Long Island to make the trek east, we set up meetings in various towns. Sort of an ecosystem approach to an ecosystem issue.”

AMCS partner with local, state, and federal partners to do beach clean-ups, community lectures, and volunteer training.

As of November, AMCS had a staff of five, and 29 volunteers, with another 34 signed up for training. The organization hopes to get its mobile response trailer into operation in early 2018, and also looks forward to another year of building partnerships with schools and universities, increasing health assessment projects and survey work, and expanding their community network to reach more people.

Beach with people walking along the shore, picking up trashAMCS organizes beach clean-ups, removing dangers to marine and terrestrial wildlife. Credit: AMCS.