GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - NOAA is defending the protocol it uses in responding to cases of stranded dolphins. As WLOX News Now reported Wednesday, the director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, raised concerns about the government "red tape" that often seems to delay federal approval to intervene.
The recent stranding and subsequent death of a wayward dolphin in Fort Bayou is the latest case to raise concern about NOAA's response time. NOAA officials say they were well aware of the incident and relied on the IMMS team as their "eyes and ears" on the ground.
"Knowing that the animal could get out in several different areas and it wasn't trapped, we recommended to monitor the animal to see if it could get out on its own. Knowing that it does take a lot of resources to come in and intervene," said Blair Mase, the stranding coordinator for NOAA in the southeast region.
NOAA says a crucial missing piece in this case was a photograph showing the condition of the animal.
"It's a two-way street. We work together. We rely on them to provide us information to help us make those decisions. And when we don't have all the pieces of the puzzle together, it's tough to make that go or no-go decision," said Mase.
"Photo documentation is a first step in helping us and guiding us and helping us make those decisions. If that step is not achieved, then we cannot go further to make those decisions," said Mase.
Reports coming from the bayou, NOAA officials say, were actually encouraging.
"Was not a cause for concern. The animal was breathing normally, it was behaving normally. Even though it was staying in that area, there was no immediate red flag that said, oh, we need to jump in now. And we weren't hearing that from IMMS, that we needed to do something immediately," said Dr. Erin Fougeres, the stranding administrator for NOAA in the southeast region.
NOAA says it was moving forward with a plan to try and herd the animal from the bayou; but before that could occur, the dolphin was found dead.
The stranding administrator also says capturing such an animal, is always the last resort.
"To mount an intervention and actually capture and relocate an animal, it can take about 30 to 40 people, five to six boats, plus a specialized capture boat. A boat that we have to use that goes fast enough to carry the net. And right now, there's only about two of those in the southeast. We would have had to drive one over from Florida," said Dr. Fougeres.
IMMS Executive Director Dr. Moby Solangi told WLOX News Now he takes issue with NOAA's statements that his group failed to "raise red flags" about the dolphin's condition. He said his group expressed serious concerns and recommended intervention, or capturing the dolphin and taking it to IMMS for a health evaluation.
He shared an e-mail his stranding coordinator sent to NOAA from the scene. It recommended capturing the dolphin and said despite the lack of photographs, the animal was showing lesions consistent with freshwater toxicity.
Dr. Fougeres said capturing a dolphin in distress is always viewed as a last resort.
"Because it's very dangerous for both the animal, who can become entangled in the net and drown during the capture process, or become so stressed out by the capture process that it dies, and also dangerous for the people in the water."
She said rescuers could suffer injuries like broken bones or dislocated shoulders in attempting to catch such an animal.