A new study being led by a top marine ecologist could help people determine which whales to save first in future mass strandings.

New Zealand was known around the world for its unusually high rate of mass whale strandings - at least two occur events occur each year on average, and usually over summer.

Scientists have recorded 132 pilot whale strandings, involving an estimated 9,234 whales, between 1978 and 2017.

That included the tragic stranding of 600 pilot whales that beached themselves at known trouble-spot Farewell Spit near Golden Bay last summer, in which more than half died over hours, days and weeks.

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Now Massey University's Dr Karen Stockin, associate investigator at the Animal Welfare and Bioethics Centre aims to develop a new way to assess the survival likelihood of refloated whales over different scenarios.

That would help tell rescuers which whales had the best shot of survival.

Her project, supported by the new $10,000 Bob Kerridge Animal Welfare Fellowship, will also look at the human element of these events - and how the views of people involved might change over the course of them.

"New Zealand has an international reputation not only for its high incidence of mass strandings, but also its degree of public engagement at such events," Stockin said.

"The public and media play a significant role, which can dramatically change the outcome of management decisions we see on beaches during emotive events such as a mass stranding."

Kerridge believed the study would make an important difference in the future.

"Humans have a great empathy and connection with whales, and the tragedy of their many strandings is one of the great mysteries of the ocean and one that has a major emotional impact on those who experience them," he said.

"It is our belief that Dr Stockin's study will lead to a greater understanding and consequently more humane and effective management of whales in distress."