January 2, 2016
From Times of Oman
Muscat: Oman’s endangered sea mammals now have more chances of staying alive from the fishing gear entanglements or beaching as the Sultanate is upping efforts for effective stranding and entanglement response, officials of International Whaling Commission (IWC) have said.
“Since 2012, I have conducted entanglement response training for approximately 600 people from 24 countries, and I would say that the recent entanglement response training in Muscat was one of the most successful,” David Mattila, Technical Adviser – Human Impact Reduction at the IWC told Times of Oman (TOO) in an exclusive interview.
Mattila, who has studied whales across the world’s oceans and invented some techniques used to release entangled whales, said, “One of the reasons for this was the level of involvement by the government.”
He was recently in Oman leading an IWC workshop on effective whale entanglement response training. Oman is the first country in the region to have received this training.
The Sultanate is home to more than 20 species of whales and dolphins, accounting for over a quarter of the world’s species, including the genetically distinct and non-migratory Arabian Sea Humpback Whale (ASHW).
Entanglement remains an unremitting threat to endangered whales and dolphins even as the sea mammals often throw themselves out of the sea and end up beaching themselves in search of food, sometime to death.
In many such cases, the mammals have been successfully sent back to waters after timely intervention. The country, experts said, continues to improve its capacity building and entanglement responses.
Marine mammal training
Mattila said Oman shows great leadership on marine mammal issues in the region, “as it was the first of the range states of the Arabian Sea to request this capacity building.”
“Since the training, I have now had expressions of interest from researchers representing Iran, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka,” the expert said, adding, “Hopefully, Oman’s leadership on these issues with lead to capacity building throughout the region, perhaps with a regional training workshop in the near future.”
Asked about the preparedness level in Oman, he said that all countries struggle with preparedness for the “unpredictable events” and few countries (if any) are fully prepared.
“Having said this, Oman has a National Stranding Response Committee coordinated by MECA [Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs] , and there are approximately 1150 stranding records that go back to 1955 in a stranding database hosted at Five Oceans Environmental Services (FOES). Oman undertook a stranding response training in the past (2013), and it was conducted by very capable local responders. With this second stranding training in 2015, MECA has engaged with other relevant Omani government agencies (e.g. Navy and Coast Guard), and this shows great promise for future preparedness,” the whaling commission expert said.
Mattila, however, said Oman needs specific marine mammal training for biologists and veterinarians, “to gather more advanced scientific and medical information from stranded animals.”
With regard to developing a robust “response infrastructure” in Oman, he said the training has stimulated the development of an Action Plan and that there have been discussions on the possibility of identifying key individuals who might undertake “apprenticeship” with one of IWC’s established global network members.
“These have usually been at the Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts, USA, where we have welcomed apprentices from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Mexico and the UK,” he said.
“But also, staying prepared for an entanglement (or stranding) response will mean undertaking periodic refresher trainings in Oman as, given the extremely endangered status of the Arabian Sea humpback whale population, entanglements will be very rare….but extremely important to respond to,” Mattila added.
With regard to “next steps” for stranding, he said one of the suggestions is for the veterinarian who currently attends stranding in Oman “to acquire marine mammal specific training”.
“I have been looking into opportunities in the USA, and the best option so far seems to be a marine mammal veterinarian “apprenticeship” with the Marine Mammal Center in California,” he suggested.
Marine wildlife rescue and rehabilitation experts like Braine Sharp said the response teams in Omani are doing a “great job” of organising and training for whale and dolphin stranding events, “which are always incredibly difficult and challenging events.”
“The Omani government, through the MECA, and other associated agencies appear committed to continuing these trainings and collaborations to make sure the best possible care is provided for stranded marine mammals in the Sultanate of Oman,” said Sharp, stranding coordinator at the US-based International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“We support their efforts and have formed good partnerships that can be used for future collaborations,” he further added.
Andy Willson, Senior Marine Consultant at the Oman-based Five Oceans Environmental Services (FOES) said that from recent marine mammal strandings authorities have recognised the requirement to have more expertise to respond.
“MECA has been very proactive in seeking assistance for training to respond to strandings from IWC, IFAW, as well as local training and support provided by FOES. The number of responders is thin on the ground for the length of coastline, but recent training is addressing that… the challenges are unique though,” he said.
The MECA, experts said, has a procedure in place for preliminary response to most stranding cases including preliminary assessment, gathering data and in specific cases with small animals (dolphins) being able to return them to the sea.
“But the entanglement response to whales stuck in nets requires greater care,” said Willson.
“The review process is still underway for how this can be implemented nationally… given the training was recent. It requires many skills including those who are familiar in working with and interpreting whale behavior and sufficient resources to be able to mobilize the experts into the field.”