NOAA launches federal investigation into Gulf dolphin deaths

NOAA launches federal investigation into Gulf dolphin deaths
Dolphins, like this one found on Front Beach in Ocean Springs, are washing up on Gulf Coast beaches in record numbers this year. Now, NOAA is taking action, declaring it an Unusual Mortality Event. (Source: Photo WLOX)

BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - Dead dolphins are washing up on coast beaches in record numbers this year. Most scientists believe the trillions of gallons of Mississippi River water pouring out of Louisiana’s Bonnet Carre Spillway into the Mississippi Sound is the culprit.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is putting together a team to look into the elevated bottlenose dolphin strandings in the Northern Gulf of Mexico including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the panhandle of Florida. NOAA has declared an “Unusual Mortality Event” to bring marine biologists and government agencies together. With dolphin deaths now at 279 in the northern Gulf of Mexico, investigators say the effort is urgent.

In a majority of cases so far, the investigations of the deaths have shown a relationship to freshwater intrusion from the spillway. But placing the blame squarely there isn't as easy as it might first appear.

“There are some animals with visible signs of skin lesions consistent with fresh water intrusion, but it’s too early to say whether that is the cause of the mortality. There are animals that don’t have skin lesions, and we’re investigating the potential cause and contributing factors to those mortalities,” NOAA Program Administrator Dr. Erin Fougeres explained. “Fresh water is one thing we’re considering but it doesn’t appear to be the cause of death for all the animals so we’re continuing to investigate.”

According to NOAA Fisheries Coordinator Dr. Teri Rowles, “We will be establishing an investigative team and they will work to take a look at the findings to date, talk about additional analysis and sample collections for carcasses and live animals that go into the future.”

An Unusual Mortality Event is defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and demands immediate response by NOAA. Click here to read more about the seven criteria used to determine whether a mortality event is unusual.

Comparison of 2019 monthly bottlenose dolphin strandings (orange) to the 17-year historical monthly average including previous UMEs (blue) and the historical monthly average excluding previous UMEs (green).
Comparison of 2019 monthly bottlenose dolphin strandings (orange) to the 17-year historical monthly average including previous UMEs (blue) and the historical monthly average excluding previous UMEs (green). (Source: NOAA)

If you encounter a dead dolphin on the beach, or see a live dolphin in distress or stranded (floating or on the beach) NOAA has some advice on what to do.

  • First, call the 24/7 Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 877-WHALE HELP (877-942-5343). The stranding network will send out trained responders who will get to the scene quickly with appropriate equipment.
  • DON’T push the animal back out to sea. Stranded marine mammals may be sick or injured. Returning animals to sea delays examination and treatment and often results in the animal re-stranding in worse condition.
  • If the animal returns to the water on its own, DON’T attempt to interact with it (swim with, ride, etc.).
  • DO put human safety above animal safety. If conditions are dangerous, do not attempt to approach the animal.
  • DO stay with the animal until rescuers arrive, but use caution. Marine mammals can be dangerous and/or carry disease. Keep a safe distance from the head and tail. Do not touch the animal and avoid inhaling the animal’s expired air.
  • If the animal is alive, DO keep its skin moist and cool by splashing water over its body. Use wet towels to help keep the skin moist and prevent sunburn.
  • If the animal is alive, DON’T cover or obstruct the blowhole. Try to keep sand and water away from the blowhole.
  • DO keep crowds away and noise levels down to avoid causing further stress to the animal.
  • DO report all dead marine mammals, even if they are decomposed.
  • DO keep dogs/pets away from the live or dead marine mammal.
  • DON’T collect any parts (tissues, teeth, bones, or gear, etc.) from dead animals. They are still covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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