Dolphin expert still not ready to blame oil for deaths

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Such a big part of what makes South Mississippi special is its natural beauty and abundance of wildlife. So how are the dolphins, turtles and seabirds fairing one year after oil invaded their once pristine habitats?

Dr. Moby Solangi of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport has been collecting and studying dead and injured animals before, during and after the oil spill.

The beautiful and brilliant bottle-nose dolphin, so important to our ecosystem, seemed spared from the BP oil spill, at first.

"We thought things were moving along just fine until we got this unusual mortalities with the baby dolphins in January, February and March," Dr. Solangi said.

In those three months, IMMS reported 86 dolphin deaths in Mississippi. That's more than double what it had reported the entire year before. But Dr. Solangi isn't blaming oil just yet.
"With dolphins, we've only seen one or two that had external oil."

He said what lies within these dead calves should tell the tale. IMMS sent samples to the U.S. government more than month ago. But a possible federal law suit against BP means those samples are now wrapped in red tape, waiting to be tested. Dr. Solangi said those kinds of delays cause skepticism among the public, and could hinder the research into a cause of death.

"The sooner we get the results of the analysis, the sooner we can then work towards resolving those issues."

He's happy to say the dolphin deaths have dropped off. But now another species is showing signs of trouble.

"Now we have turtles coming in March and April, and now another spike that we haven't seen before."

So far, 150 turtles have been found dead. The turtles will also be tested to try and find the cause of death.

Dr. Solangi said, "In the last year, oddly enough, we have not seen any turtle with any external oil."

That was not the case for sea birds though; some were covered in thick black oil.

"They were affected quite a bit, those that were nesting. But you have to remember, birds can also fly away, so many of them moved."

In Mississippi, 1,009 birds were found dead, while 125 oiled-birds were cleaned and released. Solangi said it could have been much worse.

"In terms of the big picture, wildlife was spared. I believe the amount of oil that came to the shoreline was significantly less than if we hadn't used those techniques."

He's talking about what he considers to be some successful methods used to lessen the effects of oil on the environment. He hopes humans keep up the effort to protect and restore the habitat for the marine mammals he studies.

"I am very cautiously optimistic. I think in the long run, if we work hard and are prudent, the area will recover."

If you ever see a dead or injured turtle or dolphin, call the 24-hour rescue line at IMMS at 1-888-SOS-DOLPHIN.

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