January 4, 2014 at 6:52 pm #2093MikeKeymaster
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
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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