College of Arts & Sciences

Education and Conservation: 200+ Student Volunteers Buoy UNCW’s Marine Mammal Stranding Program

FEBRUARY 10, 2023

North Carolina is home to a shoreline that spans 322 miles, and with more than 12,000 miles of estuarine coastline, the state boasts the second largest estuarine system in the United States. Dolphin and whale sightings are enthralling, and it can be devastating to see a such a beautiful marine mammal strand or beach itself. It is also difficult to know who to call or how to help these federally protected species.

UNCW’s Marine Mammal Stranding Program is a 28-year member of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program.

As part of this national program that coordinates emergency responses to sick, injured, distressed or deceased marine mammals, the MMSP responds to frequent strandings – approximately 300 per year in NC alone. The program works in partnership with the National Park Service, the NC Wildlife Commission, NC State Fisheries, the Coast Guard, the Audubon Society, and other agencies. 

More than 200 students, including undergraduate, graduate and post-doc, volunteer with the MMSP. They participate in extensive training for data collection, blood-borne pathogens and live animal response. Dr. Michael Tift serves as director of the program and Dr. Tiffany Keenan serves as the stranding coordinator in UNCW’s Department of Biology and Marine Biology and the Center for Marine Science.

“The UNCW MMSP presents a unique opportunity for colleges and departments across the university to experience applied learning and intensive research,” said Tift. Naturally, biology and marine biology and other sciences benefit from the program, as do many other departments, such as nursing, psychology, pre-veterinary, physical therapy, and even the arts.

Some 200+ students, including undergrad, graduate, and post-doc, from across our various colleges within the university volunteer within the MMSP. These students participate in extensive training for data collection, blood borne pathogens, and live animal response. The data sheets for NOAA require detailed and specific data about the mammal, where it was located, human interactions, vessel strikes and more as part of this research-intensive program.

Students are involved in the entire process of dealing with a stranding, from assessment, measuring, taking samples, to removal of the carcass, and the necropsy. Students work alongside partners within local and federal agencies, allowing them to gain real-world experiences and skills that can be applied to their future careers.

Emily Krasic, a recent biology and marine biology graduate and volunteer for the MMSP shares the most rewarding aspect of her involvement is, “being able to work on high-impact research projects and learn from such magnificent animals, while being a part of a program that works with NOAA to make sure that these animals have the best chance of survival in the wild, despite human presence and interaction.“

The MMSP’s volunteers include Dr. Ann Pabst and Dr. Bill McLellan, leading experts in the world of marine mammal strandings. Pabst and McLellan brought their expertise to UNCW in 1995 to develop and co-lead the program. Though the leadership has changed, the mission of the MMSP remains the same - educate and conserve. As an active research program numerous tissues and samples are collected on the beach to advance research for a host of colleges and programs within the university.

Keenan shares, “I had the unique opportunity to train with Ann and Bill over the past decade - first as an undergraduate and then as a Master's and Ph.D. Student - and I am honored to have a chance to "pay it forward" by carrying on the mission of the MMSP and sharing the lessons that I learned on the beach and in the lab with other students!”

-ME Frizzell