Dolphin strandings, deaths off East Coast – 09/12/2013

  • January 4, 2014 at 6:52 pm #2093

    Dolphin strandings, deaths seen off East Coast waters

    Bottlenose dolphins are dying from Virginia to New York, with at
    least 124 strandings reported since July, federal wildlife officials reported
    Thursday. That’s a death rate seven times higher than normal for the East Coast
    in July.

    The National Marine Fisheries Service declared a federal “unusual mortality
    event,” and said it is increasing federal investigation and funding for analyses
    of the dolphin deaths. National Marine Fisheries scientist Teri Rowles said at
    least one of the stranded dolphins appeared to have suffered from a measles-like

    Morbillivirus infections have been associated with previous large die-offs of
    dolphins and seals, but she cautioned that investigators were still evaluating
    the cause of this year’s strandings. Such outbreaks happen almost yearly along
    coastal regions; 60 have been declared since 1991. But the acceleration of
    dolphin deaths in the past week, 35, merited increased concern in this case,
    marine scientists said.

    “This is the highest number that we have had for this time of year since 1987,”
    said Susan Barco, research coordinator for the Virginia Aquarium & Marine
    Science Center in Virginia Beach, Va. The 1987-88 outbreak saw the stranding
    deaths of more than 740 bottlenose dolphins from New Jersey to Florida, as well
    as deaths of humpback whales, as a catastrophe linked to morbillivirus and algae
    toxins. That year’s deaths triggered an outpouring of public concern about

    In the current strandings, most of the dolphin deaths have been seen in the
    lower Chesapeake Bay and involve dolphins of all ages and sizes. Some washed
    ashore; others have been spotted by boaters, floating in open waters, Rowles
    says. More male dolphins have died, but that is not unusual in strandings. Marks
    on some dolphins analyzed for clues to their deaths resemble those from the 1987
    outbreak, but do not look as severe, Barco says.

    “There is no smoking gun yet.”

    Declaration of the outbreak means that within two days federal scientists and
    funds should begin aiding investigators. Because of the rapid increase in
    dolphin deaths, the investigators acknowledged that a disease of some kind is
    the most likely explanation for the strandings.

    In April, federal officials had declared a similar, but smaller series of strandings involving 51 emaciated dolphins that died off Florida’s East Coast from January through July.

    Rowles said that children and dogs should remain at least 50 feet away from
    stranded dolphins on the beach, to avoid infection. She urged people to contact
    authorities if they see a stranded dolphin, rather than trying to rescue the
    wild animal themselves. Several stranded dolphins were alive when first found in
    the outbreak, but all have died.

    Even if a virus proves responsible for the strandings, “there is really not much
    we can do for a population as large as bottlenose dolphins in the way of
    vaccination,” Rowles said.

    The affected bottlenose dolphins likely belong to three genetically related
    coastal groups, totaling about 17,000 to 21,000 dolphins along the coast from
    North Carolina to New York. Since most of the strandings appear to have occurred
    in Virginia waters, concern centers on a subset of about 785 dolphins living off
    the North Carolina coast.


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