Controversy Swirls Around Testing of Dead Dolphins


The tragic story of dead dolphins washing ashore on the Gulf Coast might be the first indication that the BP oil spill is impacting the top of the food chain – an early warning sign that human health impacts could be next.

With so much riding on the testing of the dead dolphins, many are questioning why the U.S. government is relying on a non-governmental group with a checkered history to lead this crucial investigation?

The group in question is the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., where the director, Dr. Moby Solangi, was a high-profile figure in last year’s die-off of sea turtles. You may recall he issued a gag order for anyone connected to the research, then helped with suggestions that fishermen might have been to blame. And if you didn’t hear about the toxicology results from those turtles, it seems they were free of oil. Hmmmmm.

Dr. Solangi’s chief qualification, say some critics, is his loyalty to NOAA and other agencies, which are not exactly advocates of the public interest in the spill aftermath.

Controversy is nothing new for Dr. Solangi. The Institute was also under fire after Katrina for how it handled its dolphins, and for years dolphin advocates have bemoaned links between Institute staff and a company that captured and trained dolphins for zoos and the like. That company, Marine Animal Productions, was headed by Dr. Solangi. Some even link him to supplying dolphins to the U.S. Navy for military uses. A champion of dolphins, Solangi is NOT.

So now the high-profile dolphin situation is shining a harsh spotlight on the Institute, with impeccably credentialed activists like Dr. Bonny Schumaker (from the California-based non-profit On Wings of Care) questioning whether the organization’s staff has appropriate expertise to perform the needed toxicology and pathology assessments.

It’s a legitimate concern.

A recent Sun-Herald feature story, meant to show the human side of dealing with dolphin deaths, illustrated the point. The tissue samples were being gathered by a 20-something-year-old “research assistant,” an intern and a volunteer. Trust me, should those findings become important in a court of law, the collection process will be attacked.

We also question why, at present, there are no arrangements for collection of duplicate data on the dolphins that would be made available to other experts who can do independent analysis of the tissues, organs, and blubber for toxicology and pathology purposes. Why is this standard operating procedure not being followed? All this could certainly lead people to believe that the government may be trying to hide something.

In the meantime, what many feel could be the most significant research in the BP spill aftermath is being conducted by a much-questioned non-government group mistrusted by many in the “dolphin protection” community. How long until we start to hear the drum-beat of the “it’s just perception” propaganda?

Here’s a Sun-Herald report on data collection:

Here’s a link to Dr. Schumaker’s non-profit organization:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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