Best Practice on Cetacean Post-mortem Protocol

Bonn, 17 July 2020 - Jointly developed by ASCOBANS and ACCOBAMS, the Best Practice on Cetacean Post-mortem Investigation and Tissue Sampling  protocol offers a multi-tiered approach and a framework for data collection and interpretation appropriate to the resources available.

The protocol was developed together by cetacean scientists from the ACCOBAMS and ASCOBANS regions (i.e. the Mediterranean, Black, Baltic, North and Irish Seas and the North-East Atlantic), culminating in a harmonization workshop, which took place in June 2019 in Padua, Italy.  The report of this workshop is available online.  The protocol, which was the main output of the workshop, was prepared by Lonneke IJsselijk (Utrecht University), Andrew Brownlow (Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme) and Sandro Mazzariol (University of Padua), and published last year.

As requested by the 25th Meeting of the ASCOBANS Advisory Committee, the Best Practice protocol has been tabled for adoption by the 9th Meeting of the Parties (MOP9) to ASCOBANS, taking place from 7 to 11 September 2020, through a draft resolution Proposed Amendments to Resolution 8.10: Small Cetacean Stranding Response.  The Secretariat views the Best Practice protocol as a great resource and hopes that it will be widely used in the Agreement Area.

Examining the carcasses of cetaceans provides the opportunity to obtain information about the underlying health of the animals, and the threats and dangers present in marine ecosystems.  The data gleaned from stranded animals can provide indications of the wider population not readily available elsewhere and in many cases strandings are the primary source of information about a species.

Detailed investigation of stranded animals can help determine the causes of death and provide evidence of both trauma and disease.  Existing and emerging threats arising from human impacts, including fisheries bycatch and marine pollution can come to light, while the tissue samples collected and associated data can be used for a wide range of other biological and ecological purposes, with applications across a number of scientific disciplines and helping to inform research into mitigation of threats affecting species conservation and the marine environment.

“Human society is changing rapidly. Our global gross domestic product has tripled in the last 25 years, with a concomitant increase in human impact on the marine environment. To measure the effects of this impact on cetacean health, it is crucial to perform long-term monitoring of dead cetaceans. Such monitoring includes the examination of their organs for pathological changes, collection of tissue samples for toxicology, and taking measurements for life history, according to a standardised and internationally harmonised protocol.”

Thijs Kuiken, Professor of Comparative Pathology, in the Preface to the Best Practice protocol

The protocol is not intended to replace those used by laboratories and stranding networks with an established track record.  Rather it offers a framework for conducting post-mortem examinations to achieve greater consistency across the ASCOBANS and ACCOBAMS agreement areas.  Its premise is that those conducting the examinations have both enough time and resources to carry out a comprehensive, even if in practice circumstances will prevent this.

ASCOBANS is the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas.  It is one of the daughter agreements of the Convention on Migratory Species (Bonn Convention) and entered into force in 1994. Since then, its Parties have met eight times, now on a four-year cycle, to assess the implementation of the agreement and decide what measures to take for better conservation of the species protected under it.  This article is part of a series showcasing some of the issues and resolutions to be discussed at the upcoming 9th Meeting of the Parties to ASCOBANS (MOP9). 

Last updated on 29 July 2020

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Atlantic Ocean
Baltic Sea
North Sea
Species group: 
Marine mammals