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Natural Resources Defense Council - Dolphin Die Off

Natural Resources Defense Council - Dolphin Die Off

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Published by Maureen Dauphinee
April 10, 2012

What is happening to the dolphins?

The rosy predictions that some have made since the Deepwater Horizon was plugged, in July 2010, have been belied by the sickening, relentless washing up of dead bottlenose dolphins on the beaches of the Northern Gulf.

With the spill’s second anniversary just around the corner, NRDC reviewed past dolphin strandings in the Gulf and compared them to the present one. Our conclusion is that the current die-off is simply unprecedented.
April 10, 2012

What is happening to the dolphins?

The rosy predictions that some have made since the Deepwater Horizon was plugged, in July 2010, have been belied by the sickening, relentless washing up of dead bottlenose dolphins on the beaches of the Northern Gulf.

With the spill’s second anniversary just around the corner, NRDC reviewed past dolphin strandings in the Gulf and compared them to the present one. Our conclusion is that the current die-off is simply unprecedented.

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: Maureen Dauphinee on Apr 11, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Mi J
mjasny@nrdc.org(604) 736-9386switchboard.nrdc.org/ blogs/mjasny
Over the last two years, an unusually high number o bottlenose dolphins have beached along the shoreso Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and western Florida, raising enormous concern—and or good reason.Even in a species known to experience mass mortalities—rom brevetoxin and disease—the current die-ois unprecedented in its duration and magnitude. This winter, researchers ound that bottlenose dolphins inBarataria Bay, Louisiana, an area that was heavily exposed to oil rom the BP
Deepwater Horizon
spill, wereunderweight and anemic, with suppressed immune systems and signs o liver and lung disease. In this actsheet, the Natural Resources Deense Council (NRDC) compares the new mortalities to prior strandings oGul dolphins and probes their connection to the BP spill.
The Gulf’s Dolphin Die-Off
   ©    L  a  u  r  e  n   L  o  c   k  a  m  y
For moreinormation,pleasecontact:
What Is happenInG In the Gul?
Since February 2010, hundreds o bottlenose dolphins inthe northern Gul o Mexico have died in a continuousseries o mass mortality events, marked by bodies washing up, or “stranding,” along the shore (see gure: BottlenoseDolphin Strandings rom the Louisiana/Texas Border toFranklin County, Florida). The rst event, troubling in itsel, was underway two months beore the spill began, and wasdeclining when the
Deepwater Horizon
exploded; its causeremains unknown. But mortalities remained abnormally high during the spill, which happened at the beginning o the dolphins’ reproductive cycle when much o the coastalpopulation moves closer to shore.
A number o strandedanimals were visibly marked with BP oil, but, or most, any connection with the spill was not nearly so obvious.
 The third spate o strandings came at the start o thedolphins’ rst post-spill calving season, in January 2011.Over the months that ollowed, a dramatically large numbero stillbirths and newborns turned up along the shore,representing almost hal o the roughly 175 dead dolphinbodies recovered that winter.
While the stillbirths declined with the end o the 2011 calving season, dolphins continuedto strand in numbers our to nine times the historic monthly average, at a rate that has rivaled and oten surpassed theloss seen during the spill itsel.
Now, during the 2012 calving season, the number o stillbirths is rising once again.In all, more than 600 bottlenose dolphins have strandedin the BP spill region between Louisiana and the Floridapanhandle—nearly all o them (roughly 95 percent) ounddead, and the remainder having a very low survival rate.
 By comparison, dolphin strandings in other parts o thenorthern Gul remained at or below historic averages at leastthrough 2010, and stranding rates in eastern Florida, in aregion that was only marginally exposed to the spill, havelong since returned to normal.
Is the DIe-O unpreceDenteD?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA) began to systematically investigate unusual mortality events (UMEs) o marine mammals twenty years ago, atera number o highly publicized mass strandings. Since then,the Gul’s bottlenose dolphins have gone through 11 high-mortality events aside rom the present ones—accounting or one-th o all the UMEs that NOAA has declared ormarine mammals nationwide.
The dolphins’ involvementin so many o these events suggests how vulnerable they are to environmental disturbance, and perhaps how likely,as coastal mammals, they are to strand.
But never havethe dolphins experienced a die-o that has lasted as long,involved as many animals, or aficted as many calves.
Until now, the longest UME involving Gul dolphinslasted about 17 months, ater a severe red tide developedo the west coast o Florida in 2005.
Most previous eventsran their course in much shorter time, like the three-month morbillivirus outbreak that hit Texas in 1994, orthe nine-month biotoxin episode that occurred o theFlorida panhandle between 1999 and 2000. Mortalitiescaused by biotoxins or inectious disease oten have asingle, pronounced spike, unless multiple populations areaected in succession. By comparison, the current die-o has persisted or 25 months, with two main spikes andconsiderable fuctuation, never once subsiding to normalrates. To be sure, other events have seen higher rates o strandings over shorter periods o time—a one-monthbiotoxin episode o the panhandle was associated withabout 100 strandings—but none are potentially responsibleor as many deaths. Increased monitoring eorts, such asaerial surveys run by Unied Command, may have improvedreporting during the spill itsel and at the height o the 2011calving season, but is unlikely to account or the very highnumber o strandings seen during those months.
  With one exception, a 2007 episode along the east coast o Texas—whose cause was never determined—no prior eventappears to have involved such a large proportion o calves.
 The extraordinary number o stillbirths reported since 2010raises serious questions about the nature o the die-o,suggesting that the underlying stressors, whatever they may be, are having an outsized eect on maternal or etal health.
What rOle has the
Deepwater Horizon 
 playeD In the DIe-O?
 As oil rom the BP spill spread into bays and estuaries,the Gul’s bottlenose dolphins were among the species o greatest conservation concern. Wild dolphins seem unableto detect sheen and sometimes enter areas that are slickedor moussed with oil,
and overfights and boat surveys o Louisiana reported animals swimming in aected waters.
 The most immediate danger or the dolphins was rom oiling and inhaling toxic umes, which can cause brain lesions,disorientation, and death. Yet, only a small proportion o stranded dolphins (less than 15 percent o the total numbersince February 2010) stranded during the spill, meaning thatthe vast majority o known mortalities cannot be attributed tothe immediate, acute eects o exposure.Bottlenose dolphins have an ecology that aggravates theirlong-term risk. Many o the Gul’s dolphins are shallow-water,coastal, or estuarine animals that seem attached to particularareas, which means they may resist abandoning even ahighly degraded habitat. We know that some coastal areas inthe northern Gul were degraded by the BP spill, and whenstorms come, toxics that have accumulated in the bottomsediment could reenter the water column, as has beenobserved decades ater the
Exxon Valdez 
Moreover,dolphins eed high on the ood chain, and toxins absorbedthrough sh consumption can bioaccumulate in their tissue.Some toxic compounds ound in oil such as polycyclicaromatic hydrocarbons have been shown to cause birthdeects in humans; it is conceivable that they are responsibleor some o the recent stillbirths in dolphins.
The spill could also be a contributing actor in a morecomplicated pathology. Last October, NOAA investigatorsreported that ve o the 21 stranded dolphins they haveanalyzed thus ar had severe brucellosis, a bacterial inectionthat, unlike morbillivirus, is not typically associated with mass dolphin death.
Its occurrence in such a largepercentage o examined animals suggests that some outsideenvironmental stressor was at work. Perhaps, as some o the investigators suggested, the dolphins’ exposure to oil ordispersants compromised their immune response and letthem susceptible to the bacteria.
Or perhaps the impact was indirect. Loss o prey can also undermine the immunesystem and can deplete the energy that mothers need to calveand nourish their babies, resulting in reproductive ailure,lower birth weights, and smaller chances o survival.
Thereexist several plausible mechanisms by which the
Deepwater Horizon
may be linked to the die-o, and none are mutually exclusive. All o this makes investigation dicult. Many o ourstandard assays are good at detecting acute toxicity, butnot as capable o picking up the complex compoundso weathered oil.
Gestational problems and otherphysiological impacts related to exposure can be hard todiagnose. And investigators are not helped by the poorcondition that most o the stranded animals’ bodies arein, a state that NOAA classies as “Code 4” decomposition,meaning that tissues and organs are too broken down ormany o the available tests. The act that unusual numberso dolphins were stranding in February 2010 and March 2010suggest that some populations were particularly vulnerable when the spill occurred, and that pre-existing actors may have contributed to some part o the die-o. Yet, the evidence implicating the
Deepwater Horizon
 is becoming more and more compelling. In August 2011,NOAA began an unusual eort to assess dolphin health inBarataria Bay, Louisiana. In this ormer spill battleground,biologists caught, examined, and released more than 30individual dolphins, taking samples o skin blubber, urine,blood, and other material, and compared the results to arelatively unexposed and well-studied dolphin community o Sarasota, Florida. Their ndings are extremely concerning. While the Sarasota dolphins were generally healthy, many o the animals rom Barataria Bay exhibited signs o whatNOAA described as
severe illness 
: low body weight, low bloodsugar, anemia, immuno-suppression, and disease—results
   ©    N   R   D   C
Doi wimmig i mifd oi o  o o loiidig  Bp i.
that are consistent with the eects o oil exposure in othermammals.
This comparative study—together with thehigh numbers o beachings and the unusual pathology seen in some o the bodies—point to the BP spill as atleast a contributing actor, even i the causal links have notconclusively been ound.
What WIll BecOMe O the DOlphIns?
The Gul’s bottlenose dolphins do not belong to a single,solitary group. Biologists divide them into oshore,continental shel, coastal, and estuarine, bay, and soundpopulations, which do not mate with one another and aregenetically distinct. The near-coastal population breaksdown urther into more than 30 small and semi-isolatedcommunities, some numbering ewer than 100 animals.
 It is not clear how much interbreeding occurs among thesecommunities, and the death o even a ew individuals couldhave a signicant eect on the whole. The shel and oshorepopulations are larger but not vast, and the loss o hundreds would exceed the government’s estimate o what they canreasonably sustain.
How well the dolphins can weather thisstorm depends in part on how many animals are dying, androm which populations and communities. Animals whose bodies are recovered in a die-o aresometimes said to represent only the tip o an iceberg: simply the ones that have happened to strand and been discoveredand reported to authorities. For some species, the numbero undiscovered bodies can run very high. A recent study estimated that only one in 50 (or possibly one in 250) whalesand dolphins that die at sea are ound on the Gul’s shores.
 Not surprisingly, the detection rate varies substantially by species, depending on such actors as habitat preerence,physical size, and the sociality o the animals. The recentNOAA paper does not assign a number to bottlenose dolphinsdue to their complicated demographics in the Gul. Butpresumably nearshore dolphins would have one o the very best detection rates (perhaps much better than the highestgiven in the paper, which is about one reported stranding orevery 16 deaths), and oshore animals among the worst, withdolphins on the shel lying somewhere in between.
In any case, the die-o is consuming a substantially larger numbero dolphins than the reported numbers suggest.Small populations are oten slow to recover rom amortality event. It was recently assumed, or example,that at least some bottlenose dolphin populations along the southeast coast remain depleted rom a morbillivirusepidemic that struck more than twenty years ago, withrecovery slowed in part by impacts rom sheries.
I and when the present die-o ends, Gul dolphins will still haveto contend with brevetoxins, inectious disease, and otherstressors that have provoked the long string o mortalitiesthat NOAA has already recorded.
And there remains thematter o the BP spill. As we have seen rom the
Exxon Valdez 
,breakdown products rom oil can work up the ood chain,accumulate in body tissue, induce cascading eects acrossan ecosystem, and impact wildlie populations or decadesaterwards.
Some o that spill’s most serious impacts on seaotters, killer whales, and shorebirds—including the declineo an entire killer whale population—took years to maniestthemselves.
Congress and the agencies should ensure that robust,long-term research and monitoring o the Guls bottlenosedolphin populations continue ater the current, mandatedNatural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) ends. 
NOAA and the Bureau o Ocean Energy Management(BOEM) should strictly manage ongoing industrial andcommercial activities, including oil-and-gas activities andtourism, that are impacting dolphin populations already compromised by the
Deepwater Horizon
NOAA and the BOEM should incorporate the die-o intoall environmental analyses o prospective drilling activity in the Gul, assuming conservatively, until more is known,that the
Deepwater Horizon
spill is a causal or contributing actor.
Historic Average (2002-2009)
01020304050607080Jan. Feb. March April May June July Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec.
ig: Boo Doi sdig om  loii/tx Bod o ki co, oid
Source: National Marine Fisheries Service Ofce o Protected Resources, 2010-2012 Cetacean Unusual Mortality Event in Northern Gul o Mexico,available at www.nms.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/cetacean_gulomexico2010.htm, accessed Apr. 2012.

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