Commission Newsletter • Summer 2024

Six Species

For about 1 penny per American per year, the Marine Mammal Commission has met its Congressional mandate to conserve marine mammals for over 50 years. 


We work to ensure that marine mammal populations are restored and maintained as functioning elements of healthy marine ecosystems in the world's oceans.

Commission Announces Recipients of FY24 Research Grants

Beluga whale pod in the Chukchi sea (Credit: NOAA/Laura Morse, NMFS Permit: 782-1719).

In fiscal year (FY) 2024, the Commission requested project proposals focused on A) marine mammals in a changing climate; or B) advancing diversity, equity, inclusiveness, belonging, accessibility, and justice (DEIBAJ) in marine mammal science. Under topic A, the Commission was seeking projects that either further our understanding of the effects of climate change on the health of marine mammal populations, or that address changes in marine mammal distribution or habitat driven by climate change. Under topic B, projects were requested that broaden participation, engage diverse learners, foster pathways, and develop leadership opportunities for historically underserved and underrepresented communities in marine mammal science. 

 

The Commission reviewed 85 proposals requesting a total funding amount of over $4.6 million. We are pleased to announce the seven projects, totaling over $410,000 awarded, selected for funding: 

 

  • Forecasting the ecology and epidemiology of avian influenza viruses in marine mammals 
  • An integrated approach to estimate body condition for subsistence-harvested beluga whales in a changing Arctic 
  • Developing a method to assess nutritional status of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in response to environmental change. 
  • Right whales as sentinels to assess the impact of climate change on Southern Ocean ecosystems 
  • Environmental RNA (eRNA) metabarcoding to detect modification in distribution of marine mammal populations of the St John River, Florida driven by anthropogenic climate change. 
  • Expanding access through Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s Marine Mammal Conservation and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fellowship Program 
  • Marine mammal fellowship to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion at Mississippi State University, College of Veterinary Medicine 

 

For more information, visit our 2024 Grant Awards webpage. Our current funding opportunities page will be updated in August with information about the Commission’s FY2025 funding opportunity. 

Working Meeting of the Marine Mammal Commission

July 25th, 2024

The Marine Mammal Commission will hold a working meeting from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. EDT on Thursday 25 July 2024, with a break scheduled from 3:00 to 3:30 p.m. EDT. For more details, visit the Commission's website.


The Commission intends to discuss and, as appropriate, formulate recommendations and make decisions regarding three subject areas:

  • The focus of its FY 2025 Request for Proposals under the Commission’s research grants program;
  • A retrospective examination of the 1994 Amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act and additional actions needed to implement them; and
  • Commission efforts to understand and address impacts of climate change on marine mammals.


All portions of the meeting will be open to the public by Zoom Webinar. Public participation will be allowed as time permits and as determined to be desirable by the Chair.


Those interested in participating will be required to register prior to joining the meeting at: https://www.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_Roke2ffuQ2ykUl4xLgSUVg.

The Commission Surveys Federal Agency Research Funding

The Commission launched its Survey of Federally Funded Marine Mammal Research in 2019. This online survey and data repository aids the Commission in fulfilling its duties under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) by illuminating areas of strength and gaps in federal research investment, helping to identify overlaps in marine mammal research efforts or funding, and informing recommendations on agency actions and budget priorities.


The preliminary fiscal year (FY) 2023 results summary is now available on our website. The Commission thanks participating federal agencies for providing their information. Requests for additional information or details about federal marine mammal research and funding reported in FY 2023 can be made to the Commission at surveyffr@mmc.govThe FY 2024 data call will begin in November 2024.

Updates on the Vaquita

The World's Most Endangered Marine Mammal

Surfacing vaquitas (Credit: Paula Olson).

A May 2024 vaquita survey produced a minimum estimate of 6-8 vaquitas present in the survey area. No calves were seen in the survey this year. A detailed report with an analysis of the survey results is forthcoming. The Mexican Navy and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society are working together to protect vaquitas inside the Zero Tolerance Area (ZTA) and in an Expanded Area (EA) adjacent to the ZTA. Several hundred concrete blocks with metal hooks which extend up into the water column to snag nets have served to deter fishermen from entering either the ZTA or the EA. The ZTA was established in 2020 as a no-fishing zone to encompass all recent vaquita sightings and acoustic detections and the EA was similarly designated after the 2023 survey encountered vaquitas near but outside the ZTA.


The Marine Mammal Commission participated in an Ad Hoc Meeting of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) in March 2024. While fishing has been curtailed in the two very small areas of protection from gillnet entanglement risk, extensive ongoing illegal gillnet fishing throughout the rest of the vaquita’s historical and recent range represents a major impediment to the species’ survival. Recent seizures confirm that the illegal totoaba fishery, and trafficking of totoaba swim bladders, continues, driven by demand in China. Until the much larger Vaquita Refuge, established in 2005, is free of gillnets, the eventual recovery of vaquitas and reoccupation of their full range will remain out of reach.

Capitol Hill Ocean Week

This year’s Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW), hosted by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, focused on leadership and engaged international, national, and local communities to explore traditional and new ways of adapting to climate change, saving and protecting species, and furthering relationships with the ocean. CHOW recognized people and organizations at the forefront of advocacy, policymaking, and exploration, including Chair Violet Sage Walker and the late Chief Fred Collins of the Northern Chumash Tribe, White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory, and National Geographic Pristine Seas.


During the week, the White House also announced three new strategies related to ocean biodiversity, aquatic environmental DNA (eDNA), and building a sustainable ocean economy. The National Ocean Biodiversity Strategy aims to strengthen the nation’s capacity to characterize, restore, and track ocean biodiversity to protect and conserve the marine ecosystems that are vital for providing food, clean air and water, climate regulation, and cultural identity to people across the country. The National Aquatic eDNA Strategy is a call for action and collaboration between federal agencies, eDNA researchers, and the public and private sectors to advance and deploy eDNA technologies to inform more effective ocean policies. Lastly, the National Strategy for a Sustainable Ocean Economy focuses on building a sustainable ocean economy through science, technology, knowledge, and policy. The Commission will continue to engage with its federal and non-federal partners on the implementation of these national strategies.



The Commission was pleased to be able to sponsor CHOW 2024 and participate in the development of the National Ocean Biodiversity and National Aquatic eDNA strategies. Many Commission staff members and our three Commissioners attended the week's events and appreciated the thoughtful sessions and discussions that occurred. Video recordings of all the plenaries and breakout sessions can be viewed here

Commission Involvement in the Upcoming

2024 Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals

The 25th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals will be held from November 11-15, 2024 in Perth, Western Australia. The conference theme, “Culture and Conservation: Fishing for Change”, will focus on interactions with fisheries, which are one of the most significant threats to marine mammals worldwide. The Commission is a proud sponsor of the conference and is helping to organize several workshops and presentations. Commission-supported workshops, to be held on November 9-10, include: 

Conference Art by Sarah Humphries.

  • Entanglement of large whales in trap/pot fishing gear 
  • Rare Pinniped Conservation Network (RAPCON) 
  • Tools for a global network of strandings responders 
  • Learning the “Right” way – sharing successes and lessons learned to aid in the conservation and recovery of the world’s right whale populations 



Learn more about the workshops and register for the conference here. Early-bird registration ends July 24, so consider signing up soon! We hope to see you in Perth! 

Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Collaborations

on the West Coast

The development of a national Marine Mammal Health Monitoring and Analysis Platform (Health MAP) was mandated by Congress in December of 2022, to provide better information on marine mammal health and strandings to the public. While the NMFS National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program is leading efforts to build the national Health MAP, regional efforts look to proactively provide this information at a smaller scale.

 

The Eastern Pacific Marine One Health Coalition (EPMOHC) is a network of stakeholders working together to address complex health threats in the Eastern Pacific marine ecosystem. One of the goals of EPMOHC is to build upon the national Health MAP efforts to address regional needs and priorities for marine data from stranded animals and other sources, such as health assessments of free-ranging animals, as well as health data from other taxa, including seabirds and invertebrates. EPMOHC is currently surveying stakeholders’ needs and perspectives on marine data management and sharing to inform the development of a conceptual model for integrating Eastern Pacific marine data into a shared platform for enhanced detection of marine health threats.

 

Concurrently the West Coast Ocean Alliance (WCOA), a regional planning body comprised of the U.S.’s three West Coast states, tribes, and federal agencies, is preparing a West Coast Ecosystem Health Report Card. The Commission and WCOA hosted a workshop in southern California to develop marine mammal indicators for the Report Card and to discuss ways in which those indicators can be linked to Health MAP efforts. Following the workshop, the Commission, in collaboration with West Coast marine mammal stranding coordinators, EPMOHC, regional Integrated Ocean Observing System offices, and NMFS regional staff, will coordinate on the development of a pilot Health MAP West platform with the goal of enhancing early detection of health threats. The vision for the platform includes integration and visualization of West Coast marine mammal stranding data with data on marine mammal population status and environmental variables that affect marine mammal health (ocean temperature, harmful algal blooms) and use of algorithms for early detection and automated alerting to unusual health events.

New MMC-affiliated publications, media, and reports!

Below are a few recent media highlights that reflect some of the ongoing scientific research, collaborations, and accomplishments of our world-renowned marine mammal scientists. For a reminder about our Commissioners, Committee of Scientific Advisors, and Staff, visit our website

Ecosystem Sentinels – Sue Moore


A Sarasota Dolphin Tale: Randy Wells


Offshore Wind is Not Killing Whales - Andy Read


Infection Risks to Marine Mammal Responders - Frances Gulland


Modeling Telemetry Data for Bycatch Risk Assessment - Daniel Palacios

Credit: Department of Energy