Mid-Atlantic die-off could head this way

What to do if a stranded dolphin is seen?

The morbillivirus isn’t contagious to humans, but a weakened dolphin can contract other infections. Stranded dolphins and other marine mammals are often sick, and some diseases can be spread to humans.

Don’t approach.

Don’t swim in the immediate area where a dolphin has just been stranded, particularly if you have an open sore or wound.

Contact the Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline, 1-800-922-5431.

By Bo Petersen


The massive dolphin die-off farther north might well work its way to the Lowcountry. Federal biologists have alerted marine mammal stranding workers in the region, and are cautioning the public not to approach stranded animals.

More than 330 animals have died so far from New York to North Carolina; the suspected culprit is a virus related to measles in humans.

“We are concerned (the virus) will follow the southern migratory (dolphin) group as far as Florida,” said Stephanie Venn-Watson of the National Marine Mammal Foundation.

That’s what happened in 1987-88, the last time the virus killed the beloved bottlenose dolphin in numbers that alarmed biologists.

“We are preparing as if that can happen again,” said Erin Fougeres, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stranding program administrator.

That outbreak eventually killed about 740 animals, including 42 of 79 deaths in South Carolina.

Researchers later tied the deaths to the previously untested-for morbillivirus; the virus has been found in more than nine of 10 animals tested so far in this outbreak.

So far, no strandings in South Carolina appear to have been caused by the virus, said Wayne McFee, National Ocean Service marine mammal stranding program scientist.

In 1987, the dead dolphins began washing up in South Carolina in late fall, then the numbers spiked again in March 1988, according to a NOAA report.

More than 10,000 dolphins are thought to roam the Southeast coast; the coastal numbers in South Carolina-Georgia have been estimated between 6,000 and 7,000.

South Carolina averages about 50 dolphin strandings, or deaths, per year; so far this year, 45 strandings have occurred, McFee said.

Marine mammal strandings along the South Carolina coast tend to spike in the spring and fall each year, when migrating animals are on the move.

The most recent alarming die-off in the Lowcountry occurred in 2011, when more than 30 animals stranded.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.