Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The US National Marine Animal Health and Stranding Response Conference (September 2016)

The Indonesian country update poster
The US National Marine Animal Health and Stranding Response Conference that I attended in early September (6-9 Sept 2016) was not the first of its kind that I attended at a national level, but it was certainly the most impressive one. My sincere thanks to International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) for their generous contributions so that I could attend this event, and for NOAA for extending the invitation to me.

The conference enabled me to learn many things to apply to Indonesia’s own national marine mammal stranding network. The followings are lessons I learned during some sessions of the conference. Granted, I couldn’t attend all sessions as much as I wanted to. For instance, given my limited medical/veterinarian knowledge, I only attended some veterinary sessions that my Indonesian vet colleagues would have not missed for the world. However, what I’ve learned from the sessions I did attend was a treasure. The followings are things that I learned the most during the conference, not necessarily in the order of magnitude nor importance. 

Boat strikes: 

I learned that bones of the stranded marine mammals can still tell the story of their accident with the boats. In Indonesia, we tend not to do necropsy for Code 3 and Code 4 (and we rarely do necropsy on Code 2 anyway due to logistical problems) because of the perception that the carcass is no longer useful for Cause of Death investigation. This problem is further exacerbated in large whales due to logistical problems and insufficient understanding of the importance of necropsy. Presentations from Michael Moore and Sarah Wilkins among others have made me realised that we can still learn from advance codes animals. Boat strikes are particularly important for Indonesia, for we have increased shipping frequency due to our ‘development’, and yet we have no indication of boat strikes to date. 

Climate change: 

Prior to attending this conference, I did not realise the importance of stranding data to our understanding of climate change. However, keynote speeches by David W. Johnston and Francis Gulland made me understand the correlations between Unusual Mortality Events and climate change, e.g. between the Blob in the Pacific and increased strandings of malnourished animals, changes in marine mammal distribution, etc. 


Marine mammal entanglement is even more poorly documented than stranding events in Indonesia, and this is largely due to insufficient observation and reporting. Although we have little indication of entanglement in Indonesia, the large number of fishing fleets in the country and the long coastlines (second longest in the world after Canada) made it possible that entanglement is merely undocumented, instead of absent, in Indonesia. I also learned about the five skill levels of responders (levels 4-5 are for those who have been trained and have been involved in any entanglement rescues) and that drones are used to assist the rescue. Initially, entanglement cases were largely reported by fishers, thus the State of Maine has trained 500 fishers to help the entanglement response. This is an interesting model that can be replicated in Indonesia.

Oil Spills

I learned that the source of oil spills are not only from tankers or boats, but also from pipelines (e.g. the Refugio Incident), and that oil spill victims usually have hyperthermia due to the oil coating that prevents thermoregulation. Massive learning during the oil spill drill; very interesting to learn about the four response teams, i.e. 1) reconnaissance, 2) recovery and transportation, 3) field stabilisation, care and post-mortem (I’m not really sure what the proper name for this team is), and 4) Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NDRA). 

The Reconnaissance team needs to feed the Recovery and Transportation team on where to collect oil spill victims (as in, animals) before the Recovery team is dispatched. The team leaders of Reconnaissance and Recovery should have a good communication between them. Then the Recovery and Transportation team sends the animals (oiled and or injured) to the Field Stabilitation who will stabilise the live animal or conduct necropsy for the dead animals. A separate team (the NDRA) roams around to assess the environmental damage of the oil spill. 

The use of red fluorescence vests is very important for role identification

The oil spill team seems to be an expansion of the standard first responder team for usual stranding events. I find that a reconnaissance team is also very useful for non-oil-related mass stranding events, for it can bring more structure to first responder efforts, which tend to be haphazard during its first hours. I plan to incorporate some aspects of the oil spill drill into Indonesia’s marine mammal stranding network.


Tagging was the last session before the wrap up session. Randall Wells gave an interesting review on tagging techniques, including what tag applicable to what type of population. For Indonesia, given that most of our animals are of unknown range, the TDR (time-depth-recorder) tag seems to work best. I’m also interested in the tagging concept for wild dolphins that Randall Wells and Michael Moore are developing, which involves a metal rod and a clip-able tag at the end to apply the tag on the dolphin’s dorsal fin without having to capture the dolphin. I’m looking forward for this technique for it is very applicable in Lovina (Bali, Indonesia) where I did my PhD.

General direction for Indonesia

The final wrap up session presented with us two very interesting questions:
1. Aside from funding, what are your biggest challenges in collecting and using stranding data to support health and conservation?

2. What have you learned this week that will be most valuable in helping advancing your work with the stranding network

Well, the first question was sadly easy to answer, for we haven’t gotten far with our data analysis in Indonesia. I suppose, the answer is then collecting data correctly and analysing it in a reliable and timely fashion so that we can learn from that event. 

The next question is easier though, and these are my suggested to-do list with my colleagues in Indonesia:
Implementing part (if not all) of the oil drill for our first responder training package
Strengthening the science and research behind marine mammal stranding (yes, “not enough time” is a good and valid excuse, but one does need to make time!)
School visits to educate the younger generations on the importance and implications of stranding events
Improving the sampling storage system 

As the first step to implement this homework, my colleagues and I are planning to have an internal mentor gathering to consolidate our training materials and review the progress of our national stranding network. We also would like to hold the second national stranding workshop in Indonesia (the first one was conducted in November 2013) next year, hence we shall seek funding for this activity. 

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