Alabama dolphin deaths: Dauphin Island Sea Lab releases new info

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UNEDITED PRESS RELEASE FROM DAUPHIN ISLAND SEA LAB

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Alabama (June 19, 2019) — On Friday, June 14, NOAA declared an Unusual Mortality Event for significant increases in bottlenose dolphin deaths on the Northern Gulf of Mexico Coast, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Florida Panhandle. An “Unusual Mortality Event” is an unexpected stranding event that involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population and demands an immediate response under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

Increased dolphin strandings began in early February 2019 and were particularly high in the region during April and May. Since February 1, 2019 there have been 279 documented dolphin deaths in the Northern Gulf, which is more than three times the number of dolphin deaths historically reported during these months.

In the past eight years, the Alabama Marine Mammal Stranding Network responded to an average of 35 dolphin strandings per year along the Alabama coastline. So far in 2019, the ALMMSN has responded to 37 dolphin strandings.

The dolphin mortalities along the Northern Gulf of Mexico Coast are concurrent with the unusually high freshwater inflow to the region in 2019. High levels of rainfall and the opening of the Bonnet-Carre Spillway twice in 2019 for a total of 76 days between February 27 and June 17 due to the extreme flooding upstream increased the flow of freshwater into some of the bays, sounds, and estuaries of the northern Gulf. This inflow of freshwater affects dolphin habitat can potentially affect dolphin health.

The effects of these salinity changes on the dolphins will be investigated as a potential contributing factor to the UME.

Several of the stranded dolphins, particularly in Mississippi and Louisiana, have had visible skin lesions that are consistent with freshwater exposure. Samples are being collected for special testing to describe the lesions observed in the carcasses as this investigation continues.

DISL veterinarian, Dr. Alissa Deming, noted that ALMMSN staff and volunteers perform necropsies on all deceased dolphins to determine cause of death and test for a variety of infectious diseases and environmental toxins.

“In the time of a UME it is even more crucial for dolphin strandings to be reported to the ALMMSN and other agencies along the northern Gulf of Mexico coast so that we can try to determine the cause of death,” Dr. Deming said. “We highly encourage anyone spotting a stranded dolphin to reach out to our team- the quicker the public reports a dead dolphin, the better-quality data we can gather from it. Do not try to remove the dolphin or push the dolphin back

ORIGINAL STORY:

(CNN) – A total of 261 bottlenose dolphins were found dead between Louisiana and the Florida Panhandle, officials said.

Authorities discovered the dolphins between February 1 and May 31. A majority of them — 98% — were dead, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.That number is “three times the historical average in the northern gulf,” said Erin Fougères, a marine mammal stranding program administrator for NOAA.

Because of the dolphin deaths and strandings, the agency declared an unusual mortality event.”We are seeing higher numbers in Mississippi and Louisiana and we are concerned about fresh water,” Fougères said. “It’s an exceptionally wet winter for the entire United States and it’s the wettest winter in the Mississippi Valley in the past 124 years.”

Fougères told reporters Friday it was too early to say what was causing the deaths, but investigators are looking at the salinity — or salt — levels in the water. Bottlenose dolphins are usually found in waters with high saline levels, according to the NOAA

“Some of the dolphins have had freshwater skin lesions that are common with freshwater exposure,” she said.

Fougères said dolphins have small home range and don’t leave despite environmental changes. “They won’t typically leave their resident area,” she said.

An investigative team has been created to look into the unusual number of dolphin deaths, said Teri Rowles, national coordinator at the marine mammal training response program for NOAA.

Investigators are exploring everything, including freshwater spilling into the Gulf from the wet winter, food supply and possible lingering impacts from the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

“We urge the public to report any sick, stranded or dead dolphins to the local stranding network,” Rowles said.

If you see a dolphin with abnormal skin, please note your location, get photos (but remain a safe distance of 50 yards from the dolphin) and contact ALMMSN. The public should not touch stranded or floating dolphins; call ALMMSN if you sick, injured or dead marine mammal in Alabama waters at 1-877-WHALE HELP (1-877-942-5343). Additional information for this event can be found on the UME webpage: https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-life-distress/2019-bottlenose-dolphin-unusual-mortality-event-along-northern-gulf.

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