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Diseased dolphin carcasses are expected to start washing up on South Carolina beaches any time now. There’s little or nothing anyone can do about them.

A federal agency handles the animals and does the forensics work to determine what killed them. The National Ocean Service marine mammal stranding program is closed for business because of the federal shutdown.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources has been advised not to touch the animals if they have open sores, and to wear gloves if they try to remove the animals otherwise.

Everybody else better just step away.

“They are hazardous materials, essentially,” said David Whitaker, DNR marine resources assistant deputy director. Whether DNR would be able to at least bury the dolphins depends on where they are found, he said.

A massive dolphin die-off caused by a virus is working its way down the coast. Federal biologists in August alerted marine mammal stranding workers in the region, and cautioned the public not to approach stranded animals.

More than 440 dolphins have died so far from New York to North Carolina, more than 40 in North Carolina alone, as a virus makes its way down with migrating pods.

The last outbreak, in 1987, killed about 740 animals, including 42 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.

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.

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

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