HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) - Scientists say government red tape is keeping them from trying to figure out why more dolphins are migrating to where they don't belong and dying because of it. The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies said this year there has been an increase in dolphins migrating into rivers and bayous, places where these salt water animals can't survive.
IMMS officials said of the 31 dolphins found dead on the Mississippi Coast so far this year, six showed signs of freshwater damage. Meanwhile, another six of seven have been spotted swimming in freshwater. Scientists said they don't know why these animals are heading into dangerous territory, but they suspect something major has happened in their natural habitat.
A viewer sent WLOX News video after seeing the unusual sight of a dolphin swimming in the Tchoutacabouffa River.
"This year, we've had a very serious problem with dolphins being found in fresh water. We're seeing them in Back Bay," said Moby Solangi, IMMS Director. "We're seeing them in Tchoutacabouffa. We're seeing them in bayous like Davis Bayou."
IMMS officials said the increase of dolphins in freshwater is alarming, because dolphins can only survive outside of saltwater for a short while before they start to develop skin lesions.
"Their skin is their protection just like our skin. When they go into fresh water, it starts peeling off. When it peels off, bacteria and fungi invade it. Then it eventually dies," Solangi said.
Scientists said when a dolphin is first spotted in freshwater, ideally they could help return the animal to its proper habitat, but that's not an option.
"We would like to rescue these animals and take them and put them in deep water," said Solangi. "However, the government doesn't want us to intervene unless the animal is very very sick, and then there's no point in rescuing it when it's too sick."
IMMS officials said not being able to save the dolphins means not being able to properly study what's causing this anomaly.
"We don't know if it's ecological. Why would these animals on their own move away? Why would they want to stay in the same area where it's causing them harm," Solangi said. "I don't know if it's food. I don't know if it's site fidelity. It is really an enigma. Until we can rescue them and we can study them, it's going to be difficult to answer that question. That is normal behavior for an animal, as soon as it feels pain and it's not in an area where it can get its food, they would move. These animals can move many many miles in a day. So why wouldn't they move? It's really beyond our understanding, and our hands are tied because the federal rules don't allow us to intervene to find out. "
IMMS officials said this isn't just happening here in Mississippi. Alabama has also seen an increase in dolphins migrating into freshwater areas.