Dolphin Death Toll Hits 400 Since BP Spill: Four Carcasses Wash Ashore in Five Days


The procession of purple, bloated carcasses serves as a grim reminder. As of mid-October, more than 400 dead dolphins – many of them pregnant mothers and calves – have washed up on Gulf beaches since BP’s crippled Macondo Well dumped more than 200 million gallons of crude into the waters 60 miles off the Louisiana coast.

Local media outlets are reporting a flurry of recent deaths and mortality rates up to 10 times higher than the norm. From an Oct. 12 Mobile Press-Register report:

“We should be seeing one (death) a month at this time of year,” said Ruth Carmichael, a Dauphin Island Sea Lab scientist tasked with responding to reports of dead dolphins. “We’re getting one or more a week. It’s just never slowed down.”

An examination of the Gulfwide death toll, broken down by month, reveals that dolphins continue to die at rates four to 10 times higher than normal. For instance, 23 dolphins were found dead in August, compared to a monthly average of less than 3 each August between 2002 and 2009.

Courtesy of John C.S. Pierce

Those are alarming statistics by any standard, yet we don’t seem to be any closer to determining the cause of this so-called “Unusual Mortality Event” than we were months ago. From my April 9 post:

NOAA officials have finally come clean, admitting that at least some of the dead dolphins washing ashore on the Gulf Coast are coated in oil from BP’s Macondo Well.

Although the disclosure is a step in the right direction, agency officials are quick to caution against assuming the oil killed the marine mammals. That, of course, would be a silly conclusion to jump to. How could 200 million gallons of crude oil and 2 million gallons of toxic dispersant have any sort of adverse effect on the Gulf’s marine life?

The NOAA disclosure is going viral this weekend as local coverage bubbles up to the national level. This is how the “don’t jump to any conclusions” story is playing out, according to a St. Petersburg Times report:

…15 of the 153 dolphins that have washed ashore since Jan. 1 – including one that showed up two weeks ago – were coated in oil. On eight of those, laboratory tests verified that it came from the BP spill that began a year ago this month, federal officials say.

The disclosure of that damning piece of evidence is followed by this from NOAA official Blair Mase: “A year after the oil spill, we are still seeing dolphins washing ashore with evidence of oil on them – but it may not be the cause of death.”

We’ll have to wait for the tissue sample test results, but clearly the walls are closing in on BP and its government supporters at NOAA. We now know that some of the dead dolphins are washing ashore visibly oiled – and we know that in most cases the oil is from BP’s Macondo Well. Hmmmmmm.

Visibly oiled dolphins were washing up on our beaches back in the spring, and tissue samples were taken and sent to laboratories for testing. Six months later, the public still has no word on the cause of death – but we’ve been given plenty of excuses and witnessed endless delays. More from the Press-Register:

…progress has been made, federal officials said, noting that tissue samples are now being sent to various laboratories for analysis. No results have been released.

“We have samples out now, and they’ve been going out for a while,” said Jenny Litz, a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We still have animals stranding. I would say the event is still unfolding.”

Blair Mase, NOAA’s point person for all dolphin strandings in the Gulf, said that reports of dead dolphins have remained stubbornly high, meaning a final report is a long way off. She said that most of the casualties now are adults.

Stillborn or juvenile dolphins made up nearly half of the casualties in February and March this year, but 90 percent of the deaths since then have been adults. Scientists said part of the explanation is simply timing. Dolphins typically calve in the spring, meaning pregnant females and newborns are at their most vulnerable between February and May.

How much more evidence do we need before we pull our heads out of the sand (or our asses) and confront the obvious? From top to bottom, the Gulf food chain is imploding, and has been for months on end. Yet our federal government remains in a deep, infuriating state of denial. It’s not just dead dolphins, it’s dead sea turtles, dead crabs, dead shrimp, dead killifish, and the list goes on and on. Let’s do a quick rundown, shall we?

As for the sea turtles, consider this from my May 31 post:

What killed or stranded the 600 sea turtles – six times the annual average – that washed ashore in 2010 during the height of the BP spill? How do the damage-control wizards explain why, already this year, 563 sea turtles have been stranded in just four Gulf states?

As for the crabs, check out this excerpt from my July 13 post:

Here is the crabber’s report from off Pensacola in early July:

Our observation from the last two weeks is the number of these sick crabs has increased while the overall catch is down more than 70 percent since mid-April. As we have reported to the national marine fishery on our daily trip tickets, every crab we have sampled this year has come from a batch that, unfortunately, went to market. The copper-colored “stains” and holes and burns in the shell have just shown up in the last week. The stains are in the shell, so you can’t scrub them off.

The crabber’s claim that catches are down more than 70 percent and that crabs are showing up with open sores and petroleum-based burns is supported by many other locals. From a WWL-TV report, out of St. Bernard, Louisiana:

Bruce Guerra has been a crab fisherman in Yscloskey for 25 years. And since the BP oil spill, he began seeing alarming differences in his catch.

“I guess where he was, he probably was in oil,” said Guerra, as he showed Eyewitness News a crab he’d recently caught. “See how this is all black?”

Guerra said crabs have been coming up dead, discolored, or riddled with holes since last year’s spill.

Now Guerra, and many of the crabbers that work for him, said they’re trapping 75 percent fewer crabs than they were pre-oil spill.

As for the plight of the shrimp, consider this from my Oct. 6 post:

Today, the reality out on the water, according to Louisiana Shrimp Association President Clint Guidry, is that catches are down some 80 percent across the board. Areas hardest hit by last year’s 200- million-gallon spill are yielding next to nothing. Many shrimpers, who have trawled the waters off Grand Isle for many years, are now being forced to move to more fertile grounds.

From an Oct. 4 Baton Rouge Advocate report:

The lack of shrimp around Grand Isle has forced some shrimpers to sail west toward Dulac and Delcambre, said Dean Blanchard, owner of a shrimp dock in Grand Isle. “Our Grand Isle beach is producing less than one percent of the shrimp it normally produces,” he said.

As for the killifish, check this out from my Oct. 1 post:

…the Gulf’s minnow-like “killifish” are showing cellular damage from last year’s massive oil spill – damage that is diminishing the fish’s ability to reproduce and survive. From a Sept. 26 Washington Post report by Juliet Eilperin:

Fish living in Gulf of Mexico marshes exposed to last year’s oil spill have undergone cellular changes that could lead to developmental and reproductive problems…

… The team of researchers from Louisiana State, Texas State and Clemson universities focused on the killifish, a minnowlike fish that is abundant and a good indicator of the health of wetlands.

Killifish residing in areas affected by the spill showed cell abnormalities, including impaired gills, two months after the oil had disappeared, researchers found. Killifish embryos exposed in the lab to water from the same site, which had only trace amounts of chemicals in it, developed cellular abnormalities as well.

When we see all these forms of Gulf marine life dying off in large numbers and showing visible signs of exposure to toxicity, common sense tells us to look for a cause that could encompass all these disparate creatures. Duh?

How long can our government hide from the obvious?

Read the latest Press-Register report on the spate of dolphin deaths:

Read my previous post on visibly oiled dolphins:

Read my post on a study that estimates 5,000 dolphins may have died from BP’s oil:

Read how shrimp catches are down 99 percent in areas hardest hit by the spill:

Read how “killifish” are dying off in hard-hit coastal marshes:

Read about crab catches being down 70 percent:

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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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