Unusual Mortality Event: Why are these California sea lion pups stranding?

Working with the Santa Barbara -based CIMWI (Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute) and Whalefish, I have been assisting regularly with the stranding program of sea lion pups along the Californian coast.  As part of a joint statewide rescue and research team the findings to date indicate that a likely contributor to the large number of stranded, malnourished pups has been a change in the availability of sea lion prey, especially sardines, a high value food source for nursing mothers.  This year alone there have been over 2600 unusual mortality events for the whole coast and stranding network.  CIMWI on its own have rescued over 320+ animals this year, predominantly California sea lions. 

In this case, a collective investigation overseen by NOAA has determined that warmer ocean temperatures had forced fish to move further offshore, thereby forcing the sea lion mothers to swim further out and effectively abandon thier young.  This resulted in thousands of pups being left emaciated, dehydrated and confused. 

Marine mammal mitigation workshop at the 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals

The MMOA  are once again working with Dr. Andrew Wright and the New Zealand Department of Conservation to host a workshop on marine mammal mitigation methods at the 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. The workshop, 'Incorporating new mitigation technologies into guidelines for seismic surveys and other underwater acoustic activities: Producing performance standards', will be an all day workshop on Sunday 13 December. 

BRAHSS - Behavioural Response of Australian Humpback Whales to Seismic Surveys

BRAHSS LogoBRAHSS - Behavioural Response of Australian Humpback whales to Seismic Surveys, is a 6 year collaborative study, investigating the effects of seismic airguns on the behaviour of humpback whales during migration. The study aims to assess how humpback whales respond to seismic airguns during seismic surveys. It is one of the largest and most complex behavioural response studies ever undertaken on cetaceans. BRAHSS is a collaboration between the Universities of Queensland, Sydney, Curtin University and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, and field work included participants from several other organisations and volunteers. 

This project as a whole aims to provide information that will reduce the uncertainty in evaluating impacts of seismic surveys on humpback whales, leading to management and mitigation measures that allow surveys to be conducted efficiently with minimum impact on the whales.

Peregian beach, two hours north of Brisbane, has been a hub of humpback whale research on the east coast of Australia since 2002 when a project known as HARC – the Humpback whale Acoustic Research Collaboration – started there.  In many ways BRAHSS has become an extension of HARC, building on the data sets and methodologies developed from 2002-2009 field seasons, but also including significant additional acoustic measurements. BRAHSS is a Behavioural Response Study (BRS) otherwise known as a Controlled Exposure Experiment (CEE), the aim of which is to help us better understand how humpback whales respond to sounds from seismic air guns. To assess behavioural responses accurately we need to know how the whales’ responses might differ from those produced by natural stimuli (e.g. wind generated sea noise, conspecific sounds) or other anthropogenic sounds (e.g. passing ships and recreational vessels), and how social context might affect their responses. Singing whales, particularly their interactions with other non-singing conspecifics, will also be studied as part of BRAHSS. The data collection includes collecting behavioural data on whales as they move through the study area, conducting real-time, simultaneous acoustic and visual tracking of whales, exposure to real seismic air guns, the deployment of DTAGs, and the collection of fluke photographs and skin biopsies.  The sound field is measured at many points throughout the study area to provide acoustic characterisation of the site and sound propagation.

Glasgow low visibility workshop and the All Energy Exhibition

In early May MMOA Committee Member Patrick Lyne attended the All Energy Exhibition in Glasgow. Prior to the exhibition Patrick presented at a workshop on low visibility detection for mitigation, organized by SMRU Consulting with representatives from Gardline, PGS and Fugro as well as the presenters. Presentations were heard from Phil Johnston (Seiche) on Infra Red systems, Remote PAM and using linked PAM systems on wide azimuth surveys as well as unmanned surface vehicles. Patrick (IWDG/MMOA) discussed soft start, the mitigation gun as well as PAM and Infra Red systems, Philippe Hubert (Prove Systems) covered underwater Infra Red, and Richard Adams (CodaOctopus) discussed multi-beam use for detection.Following presentations an information gathering session began where all known low visibility monitoring methods were listed along with suppliers. How these systems might be evaluated for detection and mitigation was also discussed. The eventual aim is to report and publish a paper by the autumn of 2016 on Low Visibility Detection Methods and their viability for oil and gas mitigation.

New technologies for marine mammal mitigation at the 29th European Cetacean Society Conference

In March the MMOA co-hosted a workshop at the 29th European Cetacean Society Conference in Malta, alongside  Dr. Andrew Wright and New Zealand's Department of Conservation to discuss new mitigation technologies and current acoustic exposure guidelines. 

The workshop proved a great success with over 50 delegates. Representatives from nearly every marine mammal mitigation stakeholder group were present, including the oil and gas sector, the Joint Industry Program, E & P Sound and Marine Life Program, government agencies and regulators, MMO and PAM Operator agencies, MMO and PAM Operators themselves, marine mammal scientists, acousticians, and NGOs. Many delegates flew to Malta solely to attend our workshop. To gather such an array of interested groups is a rare feat, but highlights the interest and importance of improving marine mammal mitigation efforts around the world. 

3rd International Marine Conservation Congress, Making Marine Science Matter



Members of the Whalefish Team attended and exhibited for the MMOA in August 2014 at the 3rd International Marine Conservation Congress, Making Marine Science Matter, Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre, Glasgow, Scotland, UK.

The overall theme of the congress was Making Marine Science Matter. For marine conservation to be effective, marine conservation science must matter to stakeholders, policy makers, and practitioners. To accomplish this, the congress was organised around specific topics of interest for marine conservation in general, as well as the local area.

Do seismic operations scare bowhead whales away or make them more difficult to count?

(*Original article published in the Marine Mammal Research Unit's Newsletter, February 2014)

Frances Robertson completed her PhD in the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada in July 2014, where she studied the behavioral responses of bowhead whales to seismic survey operations.

 A bowhead cow and her calf migrating through the Beaufort Sea. Bowhead whales are increasingly coming into contact with human activities in the Arctic, such as the oil and gas industry which directs low-frequency sounds into the environment as part of their seismic (acoustic) surveys to discover hydrocarbon deposits. But, bowhead whales are also low-frequency specialists and are therefore thought to be sensitive to these industrial seismic sounds.

One of the key ways that scientists and resource managers quantify and limit the exposure of whales to industrial activities is to count the number of individuals in the affected area. However, counting whales is no easy task. Whales are hard to spot because they are spread over very large areas and only come to the surface for short periods to breathe. Surveys for bowhead whales may be done by flying over the study area while observers scan the sea’s surface noting the number, activity, heading, and location for each whale sighted. These sightings are used to estimate the numbers of whales that are present.

28th Annual Conference of the European Cetacean Society

This year’s ECS conference was held in Belgium where a key area of interest was on the impact of anthropogenic noise in the marine environment. This topic attracted many MMOs to attend the conference. Prior to the conference a series of workshops of specialized subjects were also held. Two of these workshops were of particular interest to the MMOA, including a full day’s workshop on the impact of anthropogenic noise on marine mammals and a workshop on conservation issues for marine mammals in South America.

The aim of the anthropogenic noise workshop was to develop accurate and scientific based advice for regulators. During the workshop, specialists like Peter Tyack, Roger Gentry, Michel Andre and Peter Evans presented some of their work, which resulted in an interesting debate on (Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS) and Permanent Threshold Shift (PTS) levels as they become increasingly species dependent.  Overall, many issues worth considering were raised –final results of the discussions will be published in the near future.

20th Biennial Conference on Marine Mammals; Part 2.

Between 7 and 13 December 2013, I was able to attend the 20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals at the Otago University in Dunedin, New Zealand.

At the start of the conference there were two days of workshops, all of which were very interesting and made it difficult to choose! Personally, I choose to participate in “Best practice principles for monitoring the effect of coastal development on marine mammals” and “Cognition and Self-awareness in Cetaceans: A review of ethical implications for conservation laws”, two very intriguing and interesting topics, which made the days go by quickly! This weekend of workshops ended with the IceBreaker at the Museum of Otago, where we were able to come together and catch up with all the friends and colleagues that had arrived by that time.

Getting to grips with PAMGuard: MMOA members attend the new advanced PAMGuard course.

In January 2014 Sarah Barry of the Executive Committee independently attended the first advanced PAMGuard course. PAMGuard is one of the leading research and industry PAM software for real-time data collection and offline analysis. The developers of PAMGuard offer several different courses including an Introduction to PAMGuard and practical PAMGuard courses and now a two-day classroom-based course which enables those with previous PAMGuard experience to get to grips with more advanced features, in particular offline analysis and data management. The courses have a high tutor-to-student ratio to ensure participants are able to receive individual assistance with their training requirements.

The advanced course included some core analysis modules and participants were able to explore the advanced functions in viewer mode. Participants were also able to tailor training to their particular needs by selecting from a range of optional modules including how to use complex classifiers such as Whistle Detection and Classification, High Resolution Localisation, Target Motion Localisation, Data Management, Noise Monitoring, and MATLAB library.

These modules were all very interesting, and useful for research and offline analysis, but not appropriate for PAM operators using PAMGuard for real time mitigational purposes. However, a module that showed how the automatic field data logging program Logger can be used within PAMGuard did prove to be interesting and relevant for mitigation. This may prove to be a useful tool for collecting sightings data alongside PAM. Using Logger, it is also possible to design any number of forms for manual input of data so all data required by standardised forms (JIP, JNCC) could be entered relatively easily.

Trinidad and Tobago to develop marine mammal mitigation measures

Trinidad and Tobago is the leading Caribbean producer of oil and gas, and its economy is heavily dependent upon these resources. Offshore oil exploration surrounding the Trinidad and Tobago archipelago has been undertaken for many years with 39 deep water (12,000 feet or more) blocks established.

The Environmental Management Authority, a Trinidad and Tobago government authority, put out an open request for proposals early in 2013 which attracted numerous local and international bids. Oceanwatch Marine Mammal Observer Services Ltd, based in Trinidad, won this bid process to develop seismic survey guidelines for the Trinidad and Tobago archipelago.

The MMOA is delighted to hear of this development as it is our policy to encourage countries to formulate mitigation measures specific to their waters and the species that will be encountered.


In just over a week, from 9 to 13 December, the Society of Marine Mammalogy is holding its 20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in Dunedin, New Zealand. This biennial conference, held every two years, is a gathering of marine mammal scientists from all over the world.

This year’s theme is “Marine Mammal Conservation: Science making a Difference”, and so far over 1000 attendees from more than 30 countries have been registered, executing 357 talks and over 400 poster presentations. Besides these planned activities, two large panel discussions will be held on Human Killing Methods and Scientific studies of Captive and Free-living Killer Whales, with the goal to provide an overview of the scientific data available on these topics, and to offer an opportunity for experts to discuss these matters.


NOAA Fisheries is using today’s modern technology to improve marine mammal conservation. They do so through the launch of 2 different smart phone apps.

See & Id Dolphins & Whales

The Dolphin & Whale 911 app was produced to enhance the accurate and timely reporting of stranded marine mammals in the Southearstern U.S. NOAA Fisheries has noticed over the years there is a general lack of awareness on how to report stranded marine mammals, which leads to delayed and inaccurate responses, compromising the animal’s chance of survival or limiting the amount of data that can be gathered from the already dead animals. NOAA Fisheries aims to facilitate the public’s response by providing valuable information on smartphones, including a colourful species identification guide, who to call in case of encountering a stranded marine mammal and what to do in first instance.

Specifically, the app allows you to

  1. report dead, injured or entangled marine mammals by connecting you to the nearest stranding response hotline.
  2. send a picture of the marine mammal along with GPS coordinates to the marine mammal stranding network.
  3. identify the species by providing an electronic field guide of marine mammals found in the Southeast U.S.
  4. help stranded marine mammals by providing a list of “do’s” & “don’ts” and tips on what to do.


This week the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Office of Protected Resources announced the publication of a new Technical Memorandum entitled National Standards for Protected Species Observer and Data Management Program: A model using geological and geophysical surveys. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/publications/techmemos.htm.  

The document outlines recommendations for the development of national standards for Protected Species Observers (PSOs).  The report also provides recommendations for a national Data Management Program (PSO program). The improvements and suggestions for national standards in the US arose from a series of workshops that included representatives from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), NMFS, PSOs and the Geological and Geophysical Industry. The recommendations outlined in the report include those specific to the NMFS and the BSEE and these are listed as the following:

MMOA at “The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life” Conference. Budapest, August 2013.

The third International Conference on "The Effects of Noise on Aquatic Life" brought together scientists, regulators, environmentalists and industry. The very latest scientific research was presented and current regulatory issues were discussed. Following its predecessors in Nyborg, 2007 and Cork, 2010, Aquatic Noise 2013 was a key event in shaping how aquatic noise pollution will be managed in the future.

The MMOA was represented by Phil Johnston who gave a short presentation on the MMO/PAM’s role in implementing mitigation in the field. An MMOA poster was also displayed and leaflets distributed, all raising awareness of the importance of the MMO/PAM role.

Marine Mammal Mitigation and Surveys in the Arctic

greenlandmmo terrycrossThere is growing international interest in natural resources within the Arctic Circle and in recent years oil exploration in Greenland waters has increased. Greenland is believed to have some of the world’s largest remaining oil resources, however the waters surrounding Greenland are also home to a number of sensitive marine mammal and seabird species, some of which are also key subsistence resources for Greenlanders. Such species include narwhal, bowhead and beluga whales, walrus and the iconic polar bear as well as Little auks and Brünnich’s’ guillemot. It is therefore no surprise that throughout the 2012 season, oil exploration within the Arctic Circle received a lot of attention from environmental NGO’s.

In Greenland, the Bureau of Minerals and Petroleum (BMP) recognize that knowledge of marine mammal and seabird species distribution and abundance is scarce and that these species are also sensitive to offshore industry activities. As a result the BMP have put in place a number of requirements regarding monitoring and mitigation for marine mammal and seabird species. Due to the need for more information surrounding temporal and spatial distribution of marine mammals and seabirds within Greenland waters (particularly for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) work, necessary for the management and planning of offshore industry activities), the BMP has made it mandatory for seismic vessels operating in Greenland to collect seabird and marine mammal observation data. The data is collated into databases by the Danish Centre for Environment and Energy (DCE) and is available for future EIA-work by exploration companies that wish to apply to operate in Greenland waters.

About the Marine Mammal Observer Association (MMOA)

mmoa footer logoThe Marine Mammal Observer Association (MMOA) is a membership based association with the aim of bringing together and representing individuals who work commercially and professionally as Marine Mammal Observers (MMOs) and Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) Operators who implement mitigation measures to protect marine life during industry operations. The MMOA also provides information to other individuals that have an interest in MMO issues.