GULFPORT, Miss. – Federal representatives were working Thursday to take possession of samples from the 71 dolphins dead on the Mississippi and Alabama coasts this year, 53 of them stillborn or immature babies.
The hundreds of samples have been stored at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies since mid-January when the animals started dying in unusually high numbers. Most of the unusual deaths came well before the normal birthing season.
NOAA Fisheries was working Thursday, with the help of IMMS staff, identifying the samples, sorting them into batches for transportation and packing them in ice chests, said IMMS Director Moby Solangi.
They will leave the IMMS compound and likely the state without any local testing done, not even on duplicate samples, Solangi said, partly because of federal mandate and partly because of the lawsuits attached to the BP oil spill. The samples will be transported via commercial delivery service, he said.
“I don’t know,” Solangi said. “They have their own labs … We’ll have to let all the samples go.”
NOAA Fisheries, other agencies and scientists have collected more than 28,000 samples in the northern Gulf for the National Resource Damage Assessment from the BP oil spill. The dolphin samples fall under that process.
But until today, the samples from dolphins stranded on the Mississippi and Alabama coasts were stored at IMMS, untested. They include tissues taken from lungs and other organs, as many as 30 to 50 from each animal.
A letter from NOAA Fisheries in late February to those who collect tissue samples stressed that no samples may be sent for analysis without express permission from NOAA or NOAA Fisheries. And it referred to the federal “criminal investigation associated with the oil spill.”
IMMS even removed its listing of where and when the dolphins were found, the size, and other details as a precaution following the letter.
“Because of the seriousness of the legal case, no data or findings may be released, presented, or discussed” without prior approval from NOAA, the letter stated.
Concern for Future
Solangi expressed concern this week that the northern Gulf has been critically underfunded for scientific research in years past and because of that, local universities and institutes have not been taken seriously as research unfolds with the oil spill.
He said public awareness would help.
“We need to develop capacity” to do more, he said, have the federal government enhance and foster local institutions so they can be more involved. This area does not have the political focus or clout and it gets left behind in marine sciences, he said.
The last survey of the dolphin population for the north-central Gulf was in 1993 or 1994.
So the NOAA Fisheries Stock Assessment Reports say unknown, when talking about the number of dolphins, leaving the Gulf states without even a baseline of dolphin populations when the spill hit. And the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires population surveys, he said.
Solangi said he fears the oil spill is fading from public view.
“I think we were already forgotten,” he said. “If the baby dolphins hadn’t started dying, most people would have come to do an anniversary story and be gone.”