Day of the dolphin: BP spill played key role in die-off


We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: The Gulf was under enormous environmental pressures before April 20, 2011, the date that the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up and killed 11 workers and then spewed so much oil into such a vital body of water. Let’s face it, the reason that environmental protection is so important is because our wonderful ecology is so fragile. Even in a perfect world, unseasonably cold or dry weather or tropical storms like Hurricane Katrina can destroy marshlands or cause high rates of death or disease for certain species. But we don’t live in a perfect world: Everything from high levels of nitrates in the Mississippi River basin to overdevelopment to rising sea levels from global warming has led to alarming conditions such as dead zones in the Gulf. This is the world that was overwhelmed by 5 million barrels oil two years ago.

Here’s the thing: The stress factors in the Gulf are so many and so great that the BP apologists — and there are far too many of them — have pointed to every other possible factor, except Macondo oil, for everything that’s gone wrong in the region since the spring of 2010. Horrible fishing hauls, shrimp without eyes, snappers with horrible lesions, the loss of wetlands — the defenders of Big Oil have looked long and hard for anything to blame that’s not the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Too many times, common sense would suggest BP bears at least some of the blame, and usually the lion’s share.

Consider the appalling upsurge in dolphin deaths in the Gulf. On this blog, we’ve been telling you since the initial weeks of the BP spill that dolphins were reported stranded — and in most of those cases dying — at a greatly increased rate. Here is what I reported in 2011, on the one-year anniversary:

The numbers are staggering, and both independent scientific research and common sense point to the oil spill and dispersants as the cause. Between February 2010 and April 2011, 406 dolphins – many of them babies – were found either stranded or dead offshore. That record-high volume, referred to by NOAA as an “unusual mortality event” (UME), is at least 10 times the norm. Two months ago, as the death rate spiked, Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, had this to say about the plight of the sea mammals: “For some reason, they’ve started aborting or they were dead before they were born. The average is one or two a month. This year we have 17 and February isn’t even over yet.”

Initial signs suggested the BP spill played a major role; at least 15 of the dolphins that died had visible oil on them. Unfortunately but typically, the federal government put a gag order on its own scientists to hide the real evidence. But after 27 months, independent scientific research is finally emerging, and the results are telling:

A report from the University of Central Florida says that researchers have linked an increase in dolphin deaths in the Gulf of Mexico to a combination of 2010’s major oil spill and environmental conditions.

From January to April 2011, an “exceptionally high” number of young dolphins washed ashore dead. Of the 186 dead dolphins reported in the eastern Gulf Coast, over half were young. The researchers report that the number of perinatal, or near-birth, dolphins which washed ashore during this time was six times higher than the recent average.

The authors of the study found that Deepwater Horizon played a critical role:

The authors write in their paper, “We propose the possibility that an extreme cold and freshwater event centered on the Mobile Bay watershed in early 2011 contributed to the location and frequency distribution of perinatal strandings among bottlenose dolphins along the [Gulf of Mexico] coast in early 2011.” Graham Worthy, a co-author of the study, explains, “Unfortunately it was a ‘perfect storm’ that led to the dolphin deaths. The oil spill and cold winter of 2010 had already put significant stress on their food resources, resulting in poor body condition and depressed immune response.   It appears the high volumes of cold freshwater coming from snowmelt water that pushed through Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound in 2011 was the final blow.”

The team notes that the oil spill occurred at the height of the dolphin’s breeding season, and disrupted the dolphin food chain. The inflow of cold water which followed prevented any recovery and placed further stress on the dolphin population.

The scientists found that the disruption to the food chain caused by BP’s recklessness meant that the dolphins simply weren’t strong enough when cold freshwater surged into the Gulf in the following winter. Or, put another way, the dolphins that suffered and died probably would have survived the threat from the chillier flow — if the Deepwater Horizon and its aftermath had not occurred. Other reports in recent weeks have reached similar conclusions; for example, salt marshes in Louisiana were already eroding at an alarming rate before the oil spill came along to accelerate the damage.

The bottom line is this: Study after study has confirmed that the damage from Deepwater Horizon was much, much worse than either BP or the federal government wants us to know, and the harm is ongoing. And the sooner that the deniers stop ignoring the seriousness of the problem, the better off we’ll be.

To read my post from the one-year BP anniversary about the dolphin die-off, go to:

To learn more about the University of Central Florida study on what caused the dolphin deaths, please read:

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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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