Humboldt State University Marine Mammal Stranding Program

A Member of the NOAA Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program

About the HSU MMSP

HSU MMSP Components:

1. Responds to dead stranded marine mammals in Del Norte, Humboldt and northern Mendocino Counties.

2. Effort Based Monitoring (EBM) of local beaches to survey for stranded marine mammals

3. Scientific investigation of stranding patterns with our partners


The National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHRSP) was established in 1992 as an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Volunteer stranding networks, authorized and overseen by NOAA’s NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) were formed in all coastal states to respond to marine mammal strandings. NOAA’s Marine Mammal Stranding Network is divided into five regions in the United States. 

Networks in California, Oregon and Washington comprise the West Coast Region. The HSU MMSP is one of the marine mammal response programs in California.  

The Humboldt State University Vertebrate Museum (HSU VM) has been responding to stranded marine mammals since the early 1960’s. The early curators, Dr. Tim Lawlor and Dr. Jake Houck, collected stranded marine mammal specimens for the HSU VM to support research and student learning. The HSU MMSP was established in 1996 when Dr. Goley was hired as the Marine Mammalogist, Professor of Zoology and Director of the HSU MMSP. 


1. Response

When a stranding is reported either online or through our Marine Mammal Hotline (707-826-3650). HSU MMSP personnel will plan the response. With detailed contact information, location information and carcass information, the team assembles the appropriate equipment and personnel and acquires the appropriate permissions to assess the carcass. Once on scene, we collect standardized data ( Level A data) which include the species identification, sex, length, level of decomposition and other significant measurements.  

Depending on the species, the state of the carcass and other variables, we may collect samples for DNA analysis, contaminant analysis, and disease assessment or may conduct a full necropsy to determine cause of death. Common causes for strandings include pathogens, human interactions and natural causes such as El Ninos and Demoic Acid. Depending on the species and condition, we may also collect samples for the HSU Vertebrate Museum to serve as an archive for student learning and to share with researchers in our region, and with our national and international collaborators. During our stranding responses, we work closely with our partners and the regional stranding coordinators from the West Coast Region to coordinate our activities with those throughout the West Coast Region. Each stranding has the potential to help us learn not only about the cause of death of this one individual, but about the biology of the species, the health of the population of the health of the ocean habitat.   

2. Effort-Based Monitoring 

Effort-Based Monitoring is fundamental to our understanding of long-term patterns of marine mammal strandings. Every month members of the HSU MMSP survey local beaches using a standard protocol to gain valuable insight into what is ‘normal’ for our area. Using this standardized approach, we can predict not only the species most likely to strand, but the most likely timing and the distribution of these strandings.  The Effort-Based Monitoring protocol gives us an early warning signal to more quickly detect issues that may be affecting marine mammal health in our region. In certain instances, an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) can be detected and resources can be brought to bear to investigate the cause of the increased mortality. Recent UME’s have included the California Sea Lion UME which was associated with the most recent El Niño. Mary Beth Pacewicz was instrumental in implementing the Effort-Based Monitoring Program in 2011.   

Mary Beth Pacewicz was instrumental in implementing the Effort-Based Monitoring Program in 2011.

3. Investigation

In 2015, the HSU MMSP received NOAA Prescott grant funding to scientifically investigate the patterns of marine mammal stranding in California. Between 2015 and 2017, we partnered with the two other Effort-Based Monitoring programs in California to standardize our approaches and data processing methods. This was accomplished in 2017 with our partnership with the Central and Northern California Ocean Observation System (CeNCOOS). Through this collaboration, we are able to use geospatial analysis to investigate the temporal and spatial patterns of marine mammal stranding in California. We are currently expanding the Effort-Based Monitoring protocol into southern Oregon with our partners CoastWatch, Marine Mammal Monitoring Group (M3G) – BeachWatch, BeachCOMBERS and the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Our goal is to expand our understanding of marine mammal stranding patterns with our stranding partners, using this standardized protocol.  

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