Italian cetacean stranding network

Before 1985 the status of cetacean populations living in the seas surrounding Italy was virtually unknown. In that year, spurred by the need of understanding the causes of mortality of cetaceans in Italy, with a number of colleagues I spearheaded the organisation of a nation-wide network to monitor cetacean and turtle strandings. At the “First Italian Conference on Cetaceans”, hosted in Riccione at the local aquarium “Adriatic Sea World”, with the participation of most of the professionals involved in cetacean science in Italy at the time, the decision was adopted of creating an organisation to manage the cetacean stranding monitoring network in Italy. The organisation was named “Centro Studi Cetacei” (CSC), and was made to be part of  the Italian Society of Natural Sciences. The decision was based on a proposal that I had prepared in cooperation with colleagues from the Natural History Museum of Milano.

I served as coordinator of CSC from 1985 to 1990. Although solely volunteer-based, during two decades of activities (1986-2006) the network generated a much needed baseline knowledge of the existing species of whales and dolphins in the Italian seas, and of their main causes of mortality. Results from the network were published annually on the Proceedings of the Italian Society of Natural Sciences until 2006, and have provided an unprecedented amount of information on cetacean and turtle strandings and mortality in Italy. Most importantly, they revealed the devastating effects that the use of driftnets for swordfish had on Mediterranean dolphins and whales, and the network results were essential in the fight to declare such nets illegal.

Performing a necropsy of striped dolphins in Apulia, 1987, with colleague Prof. Bruno Cozzi.

Unfortunately, the perfectly functional volunteer-based network maintained by the CSC was later disbanded to be replaced by an institutional effort under the aegis of the government offices. As it often happens in such circumstances, the nation-wide, capillary system devised by the CSC was replaced by a sketchy effort full of gaps, and Italy no longer has a nation-wide time series of the strandings of cetaceans along its coasts.

The entire dataset of cetacean strandings in Italy is now hosted by the Banca Dati Spiaggiamenti maintained by CIBRA with funding from the Ministry of the environment, and can be consulted online.

The cetacean stranding record in Italy maintained by the CSC from the beginning of operations in 1986 to 2004. The predominance of striped dolphins and bottlenose dolphins in the record is evident, as well as the striped dolphin mortality peak in 1991-1992, caused by a morbilliviral epizootic.