Recent media reports suggest that 2011 is a record year for numbers of dolphin deaths in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Is it true that more dolphins are dying? What’s the story? What’s the cause?
To get more information on these questions, I asked the SDRP Director, Dr. Randy Wells.
Randy is the Chair of what is called the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events. His responses to written questions are included below. You will also find websites that allow you to see the latest information on the dolphin mortalities. You can learn more about unusual mortality events and how they are being studied.
SDRP: Are more dead dolphins being recovered so far in 2011?
RSW: Numbers of stranded dolphins, especially premature, stillborn, and newborn calves, are markedly elevated as compared to multi-year averages in the northern Gulf of Mexico, especially in waters from Franklin County, Florida, to the Texas/Louisiana border, and perhaps beyond.
SDRP: How can people find out the numbers of deaths?
RSW: NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources provides weekly updates every Tuesday to a website that can be found at: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/cetacean_gulfofmexico2010.htm
SDRP: Who is in charge of the investigation?
RSW: NOAA Fisheries is leading the investigation. Dolphin mortalities in the northern Gulf of Mexico have been elevated since February 2010, even before the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, leading to formal declaration of an Unusual Mortality Event, triggering the development of an investigative team to try to understand the root cause(s) of the mortalities. The investigation is led by an On-Site Coordinator with NOAA Fisheries, and the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events (which I chair for NOAA/USFWS) consults on investigative approaches. You can learn more about the working group at http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/
SDRP: Some reports are linking the mortality to the BP oil spill. Is that the cause?
RSW: It is much too early in the investigation to identify the cause(s). My understanding is that many of the carcasses recovered recently have been badly decomposed, which reduces the information that can be gleaned from them. And even when good quality samples have been collected, it is important to remember that unlike the forensics programs on television, analysis of samples requires time, and then the data must be compared across cases and interpreted. A thorough, objective scientific investigation would consider all reasonable possibilities, including the oil spill, disease, biotoxins, environmental contaminants, cold snaps, etc.
SDRP: What role have you had in dolphin monitoring mortality events?
RSW: I have not been directly involved in this investigation, only through consultations of the UME Working Group.
SDRP: What’s happening so far with the Sarasota population?
RSW: The long-term resident Sarasota Bay dolphin community enjoyed a successful 2010, with 17 calves born. So far, no unusual mortalities have been noted for the area.
SDRP: Is the SDRP involved in other studies that may shed light on these dolphin deaths?
RSW: The SDRP is involved in a number of projects in the northern Gulf of Mexico as part of the effort to understand potential impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, including photographic identification surveys of dolphins off Sarasota and in the Florida panhandle to assess abundance and ranging patterns, biopsy sampling to evaluate contaminant concentrations and biomarkers, and we have been contracted to provide follow-up monitoring services should any live-stranded dolphins in the oil-impacted area be able to be released following rehabilitation.
SDRP: Our team has been doing health assessments on dolphins for many years in Sarasota Bay. Will this help find the cause?
RSW: We plan to work with NOAA on a collaborative health assessment project this summer that will compare health parameters from Louisiana dolphins to those of Sarasota Bay dolphins, continuing its long-term application as a reference population.
SDRP: Do you have enough resources?
RSW: We want to do more, but we are limited by a lack of funds. We operate on a shoestring budget, and need financial help to continue our ongoing, long-term operations in Sarasota Bay. We’re also performing the new and additional work that came with the oil spill.
SDRP: Thanks, Randy. Keep up the good work.
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