At least 20 dolphin calves have washed up dead since mid-January on Mississippi and Alabama shores, according to a Reuters report and The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, which has been tracking the unusually high number of deaths.
Although the cause of the deaths remains unclear, the bodies of the deceased infant dolphins are in the region of the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill that released an estimated 205.8 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
Many of the dead dolphins are barely 3 feet in length, indicating both mother and infant dolphins are in physical distress.
“For some reason, they’ve started aborting or they were dead before they were born,” Moby Solangi, director of the IMMS in Gulfport, told Reuters. “The average is one or two a month.”
Another concern is that the dolphin birthing season has just begun. It doesn’t even get into full swing until March. According to the Sun Herald, both NOAA and the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources are closely monitoring the situation.
“Our antennas are up,” Solangi told the Sun Herald. “I believe we’re going to see a correlation with something. This is too big a shift.”
So far, she and her colleagues are seeing about 10 times the number of dead infant dolphins in the area, which is home to some 2,000 to 5,000 dolphins.
Solangi and Marine Fisheries data indicate the number of carcasses found for dolphins of all ages in Alabama and Mississippi are as follows:
2011 at least 28 total so far
Right now, experts are analyzing the bodies of the recently found infant dolphins to determine what exactly killed them.
Blair Mase, NOAA’s stranding coordinator for the region, told the Sun Herald that she and others are “trying to find out what’s going on here. We’re trying to determine if we do in fact have stillbirths.”
It’s too early now to say if Gulf spill-associated toxins, such as those found in the crude oil or in the chemical dispersants used to break up that oil, are killing the dolphins. Water temperature changes, infections, feeding patterns and other factors are all being looked at as possibilities too.
Bill Walker, head of the Mississippi’s DMR, told the Sun Herald this week: “Yes, something’s going on …. For some reason it looks like the mothers are aborting these youngsters before they can survive.”
“I’m just trying to stay abreast of this,” he added. “Could be environmental. Could be anything.”
Photo credit: Corbis