NOAA Scientists Still Studying Mississippi Dolphins

Researchers with NOAA are wrapping up a two-year study of dolphins in the Mississippi Sound. They’re looking for any health problems that may be linked to the BP oil spill.

During a boat trip on Wednesday, the first dolphin is spotted in the East Pascagoula River. Photographs of the dorsal fin give scientists a “fingerprint”. “By looking at those carefully, you can uniquely identify the animal. And that pattern will change over time. But if you’re doing a long-term study, you can usually keep up with how it’s changing,” said Dr. Keith Mullin, a marine mammal researcher with NOAA.

Dolphins feeding in the shadow of Ingalls shipyard provide another photo ID opportunity. Two years after the oil spill many questions remain about how the oil spill affected the health of dolphins in the Mississippi Sound. “This is a very big eco-system that was potentially affected by the oil. And it will take time to get to the bottom of the damage that was done,” said Tim Zink, who works in communications for NOAA.

NOAA has released the preliminary findings from a study of dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, an area that was heavily oiled by the Deepwater Horizon. Researchers there said the results are alarming. “We’ve had some of our researchers indicate they’re the sickest dolphins they’ve ever studied,” said Zink. Those Louisiana dolphins were underweight, anemic, and had compromised adrenal glands; symptoms consistent with oil exposure. The NRDA process will determine how many dolphin deaths may be linked to the BP spill.

“It’s not like you can go down to Walmart and buy a new dolphin to replace that one,” said Richard Harrell, the pollution control director for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. Rather than replacement, restoration of habitat will likely be required. “Restore the things that the dolphins depend on for their livelihood. Try to increase the population back. It may be a marsh restoration that increases the number of small fish for them to feed on,” Harrell explained.

Researchers use a special dart to collect tissue samples from the dolphins. That tissue is analyzed to check for exposure to oil or other chemicals. NOAA became concerned about dolphin “strandings” even before the BP oil spill since the numbers were increasing dramatically. Across the Gulf region, there have been 732 dolphins stranded since February of 2010. The number of dolphins “stranded” in Mississippi last year was five times the historic average.

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