Home » Dozens of Dying Dolphins Preview Environmental Disasters

Dozens of Dying Dolphins Preview Environmental Disasters


East coach beaches are seeing a huge increase in the death of dolphins.  Scientists warn that these dozens of dying dolphins preview coming environmental disasters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, has declared the situation an ‘Unusual Mortality Event.’  The action will bring federal attention and focus on environmental conditions in the ocean that can affect human beings.

“Based on the rapid increase in strandings over the last two weeks and the geographic extent of these mortalities, an infectious pathogen is at the top of the list of potential causes for this UME, but all potential causes of these mortalities will be evaluated,” NOAA said in announcing the mortality event. “Work is underway to determine whether an infectious agent affecting these dolphins is present in collected tissue samples.”

Susan Barco, who is the research coordinator for the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center rendered results of the necropsies.

“We’re starting now to see lesions in their lungs that are consistent with some sort of a respiratory infection,” she said. “We’re seeing very active lymph nodes, which means they’re actively fighting an infection.”

In Virginia 164 dolphins were found dead on its shores.  78 of those have washed ashore in August.  As of Tuesday 228 dolphin deaths have been recorded along the shores from New York to Virginia.  In 2012, the total for the entire year was 111.

Susan Barco and Charlie Porter, who is the marine mammal collections manager of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, are looking at the morbillivirus.  The virus has been found in some of the mammals.  It was believed to be the cause of death for some 740 dolphins in 1987 who washed up on the eastern seaboard.

“Lung infections is one of the characteristics of morbillivirus, but it’s not the only thing that can cause a lung infection. So again, we’re not sure these animals are sick animals, and we’re finding problems in many of their organ systems, and we are concerned that they may be immuno-suppressed, and they may be getting any number of things that are causing them to die.”

In the Smithsonian’s blog, Potter pointed to other factors which may be adding to the effects of the morbillivirus.  They include other pollutants such as hydrocarbons, pesticides, and heavy metal infestations in the water.  The majority of the dead dolphins are males and claves.

“Males don’t have a mechanism for shedding contaminants,” Potter said on the blog. “The females shed significant amounts of their lipid-soluble contaminants through lactation, so the calf gets a hell of a dose early on in life, and some of the most outrageous levels of contaminants we’ve seen have been in calves.”

Barco warns that the death of these dolphins may be a prognosticator of things to come.

“Bottlenose dolphins are a higher-order predator. They’re often referred to as ‘ocean sentinels of health.’ So when our bottlenose dolphins are healthy, it would probably indicate that we have a fairly healthy ecosystem. When our bottlenose dolphins are not healthy, it may very well indicate that our ecosystem is not healthy,” she said.

Dozens of dying dolphins may be a preview of upcoming environmental disasters.

James Turnage