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NOAA Fisheries Service, MASGC award grants for marine mammal research, app development

By: Melissa Schneider / Published: Aug 02,  2012

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries Service) in partnership with the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium (MASGC) has awarded two grants in support of bottlenose dolphin conservation and marine mammal stranding response in the Gulf of Mexico and Southern Atlantic regions.

Geo-Marine, Inc. in Plano, Texas, partnered with Applied Research Associates in Vicksburg, Miss., and Chicago Zoological Society in Chicago were awarded the competitive grants.

Geo-Marine, Inc. and Applied Research Associates received a $53,000 grant, which includes $13,000 in matching funds, to raise awareness of the importance of protecting marine mammals in the Southeast United States through the creation and distribution of smartphone applications (apps).

Project Leader Amy Whitt and Jennifer Laliberté of Geo-Marine and Steven Antrim and Charles Cramer of Applied Research Associates are responsible for creating a marine mammal stranding app and a marine mammal identification/viewing app. Marine mammals or sea turtles are stranded when they are found not capable of returning to their habitat because of sickness, death, injury or some other obstacle. The team will create apps for identifying and reporting stranded sea turtles as well.

“The popularity of smartphone apps and the ease with which they can store, provide and report information make them an ideal avenue for reporting strandings of marine mammals,” Whitt said. “The app will allow the user to easily submit the essential stranding details to NOAA’s Stranding Network.

The apps will identify species of mammals or turtles by asking a series of questions, and according to the answers, it will give directions on how to assist the stranded animal. The user-friendly apps will be available to the general public.

“Outdoor enthusiasts are always looking for something they can use in the field,” said LaDon Swann, director of MASGC. “Development of a marine animal stranding and identification application will make the task of reporting strandings much easier.”

Katherine McHugh, Randall Wells and Brian Balmer, all of the Chicago Zoological Society, along with Lars Bejder of Murdoch University in Australia and David Lusseau of the University of Aberdeen in the United Kingdom, received a grant for dolphin conservation research in Sarasota Bay, Fla.

The $111,000 grant, along with more than $250,000 in matching funds from the Chicago Zoological Society, will support a two-year project that aims to find out if and how human interactions with bottlenose dolphins contribute to the dolphins searching for food in an unnatural manner. The project will also describe and classify potential sources of food that humans directly or indirectly provide to dolphins and bring public attention to the harmful effects of interacting with dolphins. 
 
The dolphins being studied are in a natural laboratory setting, said McHugh. The background of each dolphin, including age, sex, ranging and social patterns, behavior and health, is known and thoroughly documented from long-term studies initiated by the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program in 1970. This previous knowledge makes it easier to detect and classify human-affected behaviors.

“Bottlenose dolphins are the primary species at risk from [human] interactions because they are commonly found in the coastal areas where humans engage in water-related commercial and recreational activities,” McHugh said. “Because dolphins may intentionally or inadvertently receive food from humans during these interactions, dolphins lose their wariness of boats and human activities and become more likely to engage unnatural foraging behaviors again in the future.”

Human contact with dolphins can be harmful in more ways than creating unnatural feeding habits. The dolphins can become tangled in or ingest fishing gear and can be seriously hurt or killed by boating accidents. The more dolphins are exposed to humans and boats, especially when they are rewarded with food from the humans, the more likely they are to approach again.

“Human interactions with dolphins can be significant for the fishing and nature tourism industries,” Swann said. “A better understanding of how to minimize negative human-dolphin interactions will be good for dolphins, fishermen and any catch-and-release fishing programs.”

*Mindy Phillips is a student at The University of Southern Mississippi and an MASGC writer intern.*

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