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Protecting marine life with BDMLR

Written by: Kelly Huitson
Published on: 1 Oct 2022

Dolphin

Image © tonymills / Adobe Stock

In the UK, we are never more than 80 miles from the coast and while many of us make the most of this during the warmer summer months, changing climates and human activity can force the wildlife of these areas into contact with people, pets, drones, boats and general hazards that pose a risk to their health.

British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR) is a UK-based charity that deals with the assessment and appropriate care for pinnipeds and cetaceans, and has done so since 1988. It incited the Marine Animal Rescue Coalition to manage marine animal strandings and maximise their welfare.

Each year, BDMLR trains more than 100 volunteer marine mammal medics and includes a large animal disentanglement team to rescue cetaceans trapped in fishing material at sea.

BDMLR marine mammal medic training days can be taken across the UK at either wet or dry sites, using weighted model seals, dolphins and whales, with pontoons and life jackets. After completion, medics have their first year’s subscription included, and the day incorporates both lectures, practical sessions, and the provision of a handbook and ID.

Medics are vital, not only to triage and assess animals at the site they are found, but also to transport them across the country to rescues and rehabilitation centres, and later to release sites.

Vets and VNs are ideally suited as medics to appropriately assess and care for these amazing creatures, and to raise awareness for the appropriate ways to enjoy our coastlines without causing them disturbance.

Pinnipeds

Pinnipeds include the walrus, sea lion and true seal, and while we may occasionally see other migratory species in our waters, it is the common or harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) and grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) that are native around our coast.

Common seals are born already moulted and are generally spotty in coat pattern, with a shorter “cat like” snout. They are well distributed across the Scottish coastlines, south-eastern coasts of the UK and Northern Ireland. They prefer sandy beaches, estuaries and mudflats.

Grey seals are larger and born with a white lanugo coat; after moulting, males tend to be darker with mottling around the neck, where females are paler with mottling from the head down the body, with both having a longer, “dog-like” snout.

Grey seals are seen on more rocky coasts along the Scottish coastline, north-east England and Ireland, with smaller colonies in Wales, north-west England, south-west England and the Channel Islands. Seal pups can be injured by stampeding adults, dogs and other wildlife, and by entanglement in fishing gear, as well as natural hazards in their environment such as bites from other seals and injuries sustained in storms.

On discovering and reporting an injured seal to the BDMLR, a network of volunteers is contacted for availability in assessing the animal, the location is accurately recorded and information gathered before the animal is approached safely.

If the animal is injured, dehydrated or unwell, a thorough assessment is undertaken by the medic at the scene; in the case of larger animals, this can require multiple medics for the safety of the medics.

Appropriate PPE must be worn to ensure the safety of both the animal and the medic, as seals carry a number of zoonotic infections, including Brucella, Salmonella and organisms responsible for a condition known as seal finger.

The animal is restrained by covering it with a towel, holding the towel around the head to restrict its ability to bite, and restraining the body with the knees. This allows the medic access to assess the eyes, ears and nose for discharge or wounds, the mouth for necrosis, and the flippers for injury or fractures.

If a second medic is present, they can assess the temperature and sex of the animal, as well as take photographs to ensure future identification is possible.

Once initial assessment is complete, the medics liaise with a central team of advisors and vets to decide if treatment is required, rehabilitation is needed or re-release is suitable.

The central team contacts a vet to treat on the beach or at a local clinic, or if rehabilitation is required, more medics may be involved in assisting the transport of the animal to a suitable location where it can receive further treatment and recover.

Cetaceans

Cetaceans are divided into the toothed whale and dolphin, and the baleen whale.

Coastal species may be more familiar with our shorelines and will often strand alone due to ill health, where pelagic species that venture close to the shore easily become confused by unfamiliar coastlines, and can form mass strandings by following a single or small group of sick, injured or disoriented members of their pod.

On arrival at the scene of a cetacean stranding, medics in teams will move the animal into sternal recumbency, keeping fins close to the body and in a natural position.

Once assessment has been undertaken and photos taken for identification, the first priority is to keep the animal hydrated by pouring water or laying wet sheets on the cetacean, avoiding the blowhole to maintain its airway.

PPE is vital for the safety of the medics involved in handling cetaceans as they carry a variety of zoonotic diseases, including Brucella, Leptospira, Mycobacterium, influenza, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Erysipelothrix.

Movement around the animals must be slow and quiet to minimise stress, while care must be taken when passing near the tail, as it can inflict serious injuries.

Body condition and wounds must be recorded and discussed with the central team to decide their severity.

Pontoons are used for smaller cetaceans to relieve the pressure on their abdomen and facilitate safe movement back into the sea where this is appropriate.

In the cases of mass strandings, the first animals to beach should be identified, as these are the most likely animals to be unwell, and if refloated with their pod, are more likely to cause the pod to strand again. For this reason, accurate information from members of the public should be noted if the stranding was seen, and records of placement on the beach taken, as those furthest inland are most likely the first to have stranded.

Mass strandings also require the animals assessed as suitable for flotation to be refloated together if possible. This reduces the risk of individuals that have been refloated alone stranding themselves in an attempt to aid pod members still beached.

The prognosis for cetacean strandings is vastly polarised depending on their size, as larger, heavier species quickly sustain life-threatening internal injuries on the beach due to the compression of their internal organs. This is compounded if they beach on rocky terrain, or are beached for a significant period of time, while movement must only be attempted by fully trained and competent teams of medics.

Unfortunately, attempts by civilians to drag animals across the beach using the tail or fins of the animal almost always cause massive injury, in addition to the injury or illness that initially caused the animal to strand.

While flotation may be possible for individuals deemed healthy, for those unable to feed and move independently, assessed as being malnourished or unwell, no rehabilitation centres exist in the UK, so euthanasia is the humane option.

For excessively large species, this poses its own difficulties as access to sufficient injectable agents is not possible, and firearm access is not always reliable in such large body sizes.