Animal Ethics is funding pioneering research at Massey University on how to best help whales in mass strandings

Animal Ethics is funding pioneering research at Massey University on how to best help whales in mass strandings

22 Nov 2019
Whales in mass strandings, photo by Dr. Emma Betty (Coastal Marine Research Group)

We are excited to announce that Animal Ethics is funding a novel research project that is assessing the situation of stranded whales with regard to their welfare. This study is being carried out by a leading research team on the issue, the Coastal Marine Research Group, established at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, and directed by Dr. Karen Stockin. New Zealand is one of the world’s most important places to study this issue, since it is relatively common for large numbers of whales to become stranded together on its shores.

Stranding is of course a very dangerous condition for whales because they are unlikely to be able to get back in the water unassisted, and also because their bodies can be crushed under their own immense weight. For a long time, there have been efforts to help these animals. This research can help to better inform these efforts. It will provide the first ever framework for making decisions about how to help stranded whales. It will assess the welfare of stranded whales by taking video footage and comparing indices of welfare in whales in different conditions. Finally, it can potentially give us insight into why whales become stranded in the first place.

There are several ways this study can not only help many animals in the near future, but also help to advance further work at the intersection of the sciences of animal welfare and ecology, which is also known as welfare biology. This is because this project has significant potential in the following respects:

1. To provide knowledge about how to best help animals that can be applied by individuals and organizations trying to help stranded marine mammals.

2. To inform issue protocols and policies concerning stranded marine mammals with the best science available.

3. To improve the available methods to assess the welfare of animals living outside human direct control.

4. To exemplify how work assessing the welfare of animals in the wild can be carried out.

5. To increase the interest in the scientific community about the wellbeing of animals in general, and of animals living in the wild in particular.

Studying the welfare of stranded marine mammals is also an exceptionally promising subject since many people are interested in it and want to support it. A project like this can help build popular support for welfare biology. This can carry over into support for helping other animals living outside of direct human control, not just when they are affected by human action, but also when they suffer other harms, such as natural ones, something that is often neglected.

We want to thank all the people who support Animal Ethics’s work for making it possible for us to fund projects such as this. Your donations and assistance are extremely valuable, as they are the only way we can fund more high quality research projects with a significant potential for impact. If you would like to see more work of this kind carried out, please consider supporting our work.

If you would like to learn more about these issues, see our sections about the situation of animals in the wild and ways we can help animals.

Below you can find more detailed explanation of the research that will be carried out by Dr. Karen Stockin and the Coastal Marine Research Group in New Zealand.


Establishing a welfare framework to aid ethical, welfare-based decision-making during whale mass strandings


New Zealand has an international reputation not only for its high incidence of whale strandings,1 but also its extensive public engagement at such events. Between 1978 and 2017, a total of 132 long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas) mass strandings occurred, involving an estimated 9,234 whales.2 Despite costly, logistically challenging attempts to ‘rescue’ live whales, there is a disconcerting lack of empirical data to support such efforts. Furthermore, matters of animal welfare, including effects of human manipulation and the fate of rescued individuals remain unknown.3 The compromised welfare of many individual whales during such interventions often gets overlooked, especially during large (>100 individuals) mass stranding events. To date, the only welfare assessment framework relating to cetacea is the C-Well4 which has been applied only to captive bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). A stranded cetacean is already in a high stress state, meaning that the behavioral and physiological indicators of welfare will be atypical from the outset. In order to establish a welfare assessment framework that can be applied in these high-stress situations, we must first establish what should be considered baseline physiological and behavioral indicators of stranded animals. Individuals can then be assessed against this to ensure that appropriate decision-making is applied based on welfare and viability of individuals.



The proposed study is to establish the first welfare framework suitable for free-ranging whales which become stranded. This framework will then be applied to aid in rescue/euthanasia decision-making during future stranding events. We will work from the validated emphasis of animal welfare science on individual’s negative and/or positive subjective experiences, emotions, or feelings (affects).5 The project will broadly impact the welfare of cetaceans stranding worldwide by improving the knowledge and understanding of which animals should ethically be rescued. The project will accomplish this by generating empirical data to facilitate in field decision-making that supports the best welfare outcome for stranded whales. This proposal aims to build a welfare framework which enables managers to minimize additional suffering of individuals. This is critical since the fate of a compromised individual can cause future re-strandings of multiple, potentially healthy individuals due to strong social cohesion within whale pods. A debilitated animal of poor welfare may also have difficulties keeping up with the rest of the pod, resulting in reduced foraging efficiency of the wider group due to the strength of social bonds. Whale strandings often evoke an emotive response from the public, which can influence decision-making. Added to this, is the role of mana whenua (indigenous tribal groups) who as treaty parties, play a significant role in all decision-making during whale strandings.



Using established welfare assessment frameworks, including the Five Domains, Welfare Quality and C-Well models, we will collect data to inform an assessment framework specific to stranded pilot whales. Assessments will be based on behavioral data captured by four high definition video cameras with wide-angle lenses, positioned caudally and laterally for each individual to enable viewing of the entire body and close surroundings. Individuals of differing age classes and sex will be filmed during each stranding event to account for heterogeneity caused by life history. Welfare in relation to human intervention will be assessed based on the prevalence of behavioral indicators in relation to (i) presence/ absence of humans, (ii) related noise disturbance (iii) human manipulations e.g. trenching (digging a hole around the animal and filling with water), and cooling (pouring water over the animal). Observations of stress related behaviors, including arching, thrashing and tail fluttering, extent of vocalization and prevalence of flatulence, foamy feces and belching will be quantitatively assessed from frame analysis of video using JWatcher.6 Visual and behavioral laterality will be assessed to determine if right hemispheric prevalence occurs during the stranding (and if so, under what environmental stressors).7 To do this, we will examine for increased usage of the left eye and flank. General health condition8 of each animal will also be assessed using body condition scoring.9 This scoring is based on the degree of concavity of the epaxial section/ nuchal crest and visibility of ribs in the thoracic wall, rake mark percentage cover (high cover of rake marks indicative of poor welfare pre-stranding)10 and environmentally caused wounds.

Experimental manipulations will be conducted in the field during stranding events at Golden Bay, New Zealand. Extensive consultation with the Department of Conservation and Tangata Whenua was undertaken in 2017-2018, with Department of Conservation Permitting and Massey University Animal Ethics approval secured in January 2019.


Expected outcomes

We expect to establish the first baseline behavioral indicators of welfare for stranded whales. We will use the data collected to build and test a welfare framework at future stranding events, with results from this informing parameter changes. The overall aim will be to produce a framework that can be used to advise and inform decision-makers during stranding events. The goal is to assess which option (refloatation, palliative care, or euthanasia) is in the best interest of the individual animal using an established welfare assessment.

Planned outputs include a peer-reviewed journal article on the establishment of a welfare framework specific to stranded whales. An associated advisory report to the New Zealand Department of Conservation regarding welfare and ethical issues of human intervention during rescue attempts would further be generated. Finally, attendance and presentation during at least one international conference during the period of fellowship is planned in order to disseminate the key research findings achieved.


Possible issues

Firstly, as the animals that we will be working are free-ranging, there is always the possibility that not enough animals will strand in the study area (Golden Bay, New Zealand). However, stranding records from 1978-2017 suggest that, on average, three long-finned pilot whale mass stranding events involving an average of 210 individuals are reported per annum in New Zealand. Furthermore, Golden Bay is recognized as both and established and ever-increasing hotspot for mass strandings of the species on the New Zealand coast.11

Secondly, mana whenua (indigenous tribal groups) are recognized as kaitiaki (guardians) of tohora (whales) and work in partnership with the government of New Zealand under the Treaty of Waitangi to manage stranding events. Therefore, all research must be conducted with the permission of mana whenua. Although overall permission has been granted (and permits issued), we may not always be able to carry out all aspects of the necessary data collection since case-by-case consultation with mana whenua is required. However, given the non invasive nature of the proposed research, we consider this to be a very low risk.



Professor David Mellor, New Zealand Animal Welfare Science and Bioethics Centre

Professor Craig Johnson, New Zealand Animal Welfare Science Centre and Bioethics Centre

Associate Professor Ngaio Beausoleil, New Zealand Animal Welfare Science Centre and Bioethics Centre


1 Brabyn, M. W. (1991) “An analysis of the New Zealand strandings record”, Wellington: Department of Conservation [accessed on 20 November 2019]. National Museum of New Zealand (1988) NZ Whale & Dolphin Stranding Database [database].

2 Betty, E.; Breen, B.; Stockin, K. A.; Murphy, S. & Boren, L. (2013) “A review of the New Zealand pilot whale (Globicephala melas) stranding record”, The 20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Dunedin. National Museum of New Zealand (1988) NZ Whale & Dolphin Stranding Database [database].

3 Gales, R.; Alderman, R.; Thalmann, S. & Carlyon, K. (2012) “Satellite tracking of long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) following stranding and release in Tasmania, Australia”, Wildlife Research, 39, pp. 520-531. Sampson, K.; Merigo, C.; Lagueux, K.; Rice, J.; Cooper, R.; Weber, S. E.; Kass, P.; Mandelman, J. & Innis, C. (2012) “Clinical assessment and post release monitoring of 11 mass stranded dolphins on Cape Cod, Massachusetts”, Marine Mammal Science, 28, pp. E404-E425.

4 Clegg, I. L. K.; Borger-Turner, J. L. & Eskelinen, H. C. (2015) “C-Well: The development of a welfare assessment index for captive bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus”, Animal Welfare, 24, pp. 267-282.

5 Fraser, D. (2008) Understanding animal welfare: The science in its cultural context, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Mellor, D. J. (2016) “Updating animal welfare thinking: Moving beyond the ‘five freedoms’ towards ‘a life worth living’”, Animals, 6 (3) [accessed on 11 November 2019]. Beausoleil, N. J.; Mellor, D. J.; Baker, L.; Baker, S. E.; Bellio, M.; Clarke, A. S.; Dale, A.; Garlick, S.; Jones, B.; Harvey, A.; Pitcher, B. J.; Sherwen, S.; Stockin, K. A. & Zito, S. (2018) “‘Feelings and fitness’ not ‘feelings or fitness’–The raison d’être of conservation welfare, which aligns conservation and animal welfare objectives”, Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 5, 27 November [accessed on 28 October 2019].

6 Blumstein, D. T. & Daniel, J. C. (2007) Quantifying behavior the JWatcher way, Sunderland: Sinauer Associates.

7 Leliveld, L. M. C.; Langbein, J. & Puppe, B. (2013) “The emergence of emotional lateralization: Evidence in non-human vertebrates and implications for farm animals”, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145, pp. 1-14.

8 Clegg, I. L. K.; Borger-Turner, J. L. & Eskelinen, H. C. (2015) “C-Well: The development of a welfare assessment index for captive bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus”, op. cit. Pettis, H. M.; Rolland, R. M.; Hamilton, P. K.; Brault, S.; Knowlton, A. R. & Kraus, S. D. (2004) “Visual health assessment of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) using photographs”, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 82, pp. 8-19.

9 Clegg, I. L. K.; Borger-Turner, J. L. & Eskelinen, H. C. (2015) “C-Well: The development of a welfare assessment index for captive bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus”, op. cit.

10 Waples, K. A. & Gales, J. A. (2002) “Evaluating and minimising social stress in the care of captive bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus)”, Zoo Biology, 21, pp. 5-26.

11 Betty, E. L. (2019) Life history of the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas edwardii): Insights from strandings on the New Zealand coast, PhD thesis, Auckland University of Technology [accessed on 26 October 2019].