Who is Responding to Stranded and Entangled Ocean Animals in California?

NOAA responding to marine mammal stranding

Photo credit: NOAA

Interview with Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network and Large Whale Entanglement Response Coordinator for National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Protected Resources Division located in Long Beach, California.

Originally from Colorado, Justin went to school in Florida where he received his B.S in Marine Biology and Environmental Ecology from Florida Institute of Technology. He then moved to Hawaii to work with dolphins in human care and eventually transitioned to work with wild whales and dolphins when he got a job with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. In this position Justin was introduced to large whale entanglement response and stranding programs and began the journey that eventually brought him to NOAA Fisheries to lead the teams here in California.

Role of NOAA to protect ocean animals

Justin explains that NOAA Fisheries is responsible for carrying out the Marine Mammal Protection Act to conserve and manage marine mammal populations and their habitat, and to coordinate responses to strandings and entanglements.

Justin is responsible for coordinating all of the partners throughout the state of California who are part of the stranding network – organizations responding to injured and dead animals and the entanglement response team which specifically responds to entangled whales.  Needless to say, he has a big job!   But saving ocean wildlife is not just the responsibility of the federal government.  We all have a responsibility to do what we can to help these animals.

Helping animals in danger

Justin explained that what is truly needed is more eyes on the ocean to report what is happening with marine animals.  This is how the community can get involved.  Anyone can help by reporting an injured or dead animal to the stranding hotline:1-866-767-6114.  By calling this number NOAA will notify the local organization in the area who is responsible for responding to that specific type of stranding.  The community can also help by being supportive of the process of studying dead animals when they wash up on the shore.  A dead whale may not be the most welcome sight on your local beach but it is important that the public supports the responders’ efforts to take the time to study the animal and take samples so that they can try to determine why the animal died in order to assess the threats to the species and opefully prevent future untimely deaths.

The community can play a role in helping entangled whales.  Boaters who are out on the water can be a huge help to the whale entanglement response team by reporting entangled whales to the hotline: 877-767-9425 or calling the US Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16.  Boaters can also provide great support to the response team by standing by with the whale until the team can arrive.  Once an entangled animal is reported, a response plan must be developed and coordinated with several different parties.  This takes time.  It also takes time for responders to arrive at the location and prepare the appropriate gear to address the situation.  Every incident is unique and for the safety of the whale, the situation must be assessed so that the most effective rescue plan is carried out.

It is understandable that the public would want the whale to be freed as quickly as possible but the chances of a successful rescue are much higher when the professionals are on the scene taking the time to make the best assessment before action is taken.  Response team members are highly trained to handle these situations and non-trained individuals can be most helpful by reporting and standing by until the professional team arrives.

Entangled whale response

Justin told us that at the end of September a 25-foot juvenile sperm whale was found entangled off of the Channel Islands.  He said it was the first entanglement of a sperm whale that he had seen here.   Monofilament fishing line was wrapped around the base of its tail fluke.  The whale was emaciated most likely due to the difficulty it had with foraging due to being entangled. The response team arrived and attempted to free the whale but it started thrashing and made it impossible to position the specialized tools to cut the line.  The veterinarian on the rescue mission said that even if the whale was cut free, it really had no chance at surviving anyway because it was so undernourished.  As of the writing of this blog the whale had not been spotted again in order for any further response attempts to be made.  Sadly, this story does not have a happy ending at this point.  The response team did what they could to react to the situation but what we really need to focus on is a proactive approach to finding solutions to reduce entanglements from fishing gear in the first place.  NOAA is asking for anyone who sees the whale to report it as they are still trying to determine what type of fishing gear type it was.  This information will help inform policy decisions that could reduce entanglements in the future.

With the help of the community, NOAA will meet its goals of managing and protecting these species for the future.  Saving Ocean Wildlife is proud to be a close partner with NOAA to help make the connection with the community to encourage everyone to report what they see.  Working together we can make a positive impact in the lives of these animals.


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