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Michelle Berman
Channel Islands

Cetacean Research Unit


The Department of Vertebrate Zoology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has been collecting marine mammal stranding data for many years, even before the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network (CMMSN) was established. With a considerable database already in hand, our previous curator, the late Dr. Charles Woodhouse, became a founding member of the network. When local marine mammal rehabilitation facilities were established, Chuck worked closely with them to collect data and voucher specimens from stranded marine mammals. On going participation in the network provides our staff with unique opportunities to build the Museum's marine mammal research collection.

During the past 30 years, we have responded to almost 300 stranded cetaceans and have developed a diverse collection of skeletal and tissue samples. On average we respond to about 7 dolphin and 3 whale strandings per year in the tri-county area, although some years we experience an unusual increase in these numbers. 2002 was an exceptionally high year due to a domoic acid event.

The Vertebrate Zoology Department has been gathering data on stranded cetaceans since Chuck Woodhouse founded the Marine Mammal Stranding Program in 1976 and this effort has continued uninterrupted for over 35 years.  During this time the program has generated: (1) an extensive collection of marine mammal specimens for the Museum’s research collections,  most notably the Museum’s iconic Blue Whale skeleton, (2) a long-term database of diseases, toxins, biotoxins, heavy metal concentrations and  biological data on food habits, parasites, and reproductive data related to our local cetacean population, and (3) numerous peer reviewed scientific papers  utilizing data gathered from stranded cetaceans in the Central Coast region.  

Since 2004, Michelle Berman has been running the Museum’s Marine Mammal Stranding Program under grant funding obtained from the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program administered by NOAA and with cost share provided by the Museum. The program is now facing a loss of funding.  While the Museum had submitted a grant request for FY 2013, we were notified that the Federal Government placed this grant program into sequester with slim chance of those funds being restored in the future.  With this lack of grant funding, the Museum is no longer able to fund the marine mammal stranding coordinator position in the Vertebrate Zoology Department.  While the Museum believes that data collected as part of this program is vital and that this program should continue along the Central Coast, the absence of external funding to support this program means that when the remaining Prescott Funding runs out in May 2014, the Museum will be stepping away from participating in the Marine Mammal Stranding Network and will no longer respond to stranded cetaceans.  The Museum is disappointed that the federal government has discontinued all funding for our participation in this important program.  

The Museum feels that the data derived from monitoring local strandings is invaluable and therefore have been working with Michelle Berman to continue the work through a new nonprofit called Channel Islands Cetacean Research Unit (CICRU).  This organization will continue to for the respond to strandings, gather data, and compile the related reports.  The Museum will continue to maintain its current marine mammal collections and will accept specimen material from stranding responders for species of significance and in order to continue to maintain a historical record of marine mammal occurrence. Michelle is available by email ( or by phone at (805) 896-0858.  You may also like Channel Islands Cetacean Research Unit on Facebook.  Please use these contacts to report any dead stranded whale, dolphin, or porpoise.

Since joining the Museum in 2000, Michelle Berman has been the coordinator of the Museum’s marine mammal stranding program. During the past 10 years that she has worked at the Museum, she has coordinated response to over 360 strandings with samples collected from over 200 of these animals.   Michelle has presented research papers on toxicology, bio-toxicology, heavy metal concentrations, life history, causes of strandings, and general natural history.  She has authored or coauthored a total of nine peer-reviewed papers published in professional journals and has presented 15 posters/papers at scientific meetings and symposiums based on data from this program.  Data, specimens and samples collected from this program will continue to contribute to projects and papers well into the future.


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