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Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe partners with federal government to help stranded whales, dolphins

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Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
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Andrew Jacobs, who works for the tribe, examines a stranded dolphin.

For eight years, no group has been officially charged with saving stranded whales, dolphins, turtles, or seals on Martha’s Vineyard, but now the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah is formally stepping up.

The Tribe has been officially authorized by the federal government to help marine animals that get entangled or stranded on the island. It’s the first tribe in the Northeast to partner in such a way with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“We've been responding for a long time… so this was just one of the next steps that we needed to take to actually get our own agreement … directly with the stranding network. We're happy to do it,” said Bret Stearns, indirect service manager for the tribe who oversees the natural resources department.

“When you live in a place like this, and you're lucky enough to see the beauty, and you're lucky enough to encounter these animals, when you have the opportunity to help it's a great feeling,” he added.

The work of disentangling animals of all sizes can be dangerous and it requires extensive training.

“You don't just grab a dolphin or grab a seal without having a lot of experience,” Stearns said. “So one of our more experienced people has to really do in-field training for a long time because it is it can be very dangerous,” he said. 

Instead, he said, his team carefully pins the animal to the ground — “especially the head,” so that they can “cut the ropes or the lines around its neck, or around its pectoral fins to unwrap the animal … So it's a very physical process. It's dangerous,” he said. “And then if we can get all the materials off — hopefully — they go happily back into the water.”

The tribe is also authorized to transport struggling animals to a rehab facility. Stearns said his team has long been assisting stranded sea life, but he’s proud to formally occupy this role.

“I’ve been lucky. I've been able to release 800 lb turtle,” he said. “And we've done lots of seals that you take off tons of gear and then they slide right back into the water, turn around, and you see them for the next two months. It's it's a great feeling.” 

The phone number to report a stranding is (866)-755-NOAA. The Center for Coastal Studies, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Mass Audubon, Marine Mammal Alliance Nantucket, and animal welfare groups fill gaps throughout the rest of the region.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.