Gulf spill sickened, killed 46 dolphins

A dolphin swims in the Barataria Bay near oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill off Grand Isle, La., in 2010.

Forty-six dolphins found stranded on Gulf state beaches died from bacterial pneumonia, adrenal disease and lung lesions caused by pollutants from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a federal study of the strandings has concluded.

The study gives more firepower to environmental groups as regulators work through approvals to open Lowcountry offshore water to seismic gun testing and drilling for potential oil and natural gas reserves. Industry spokespeople have argued that the work can be conducted while ensuring the safety of marine animals. The issue cuts to the heart of coastal life, where people appear to largely support curbing exploration to protect marine life and a billion-dollar tourism economy.

Most state political figures and others support exploring for potential economic benefits, even though the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management has concluded that the work “may result in low immediate economic benefits for nearby communities.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration examined “fresh dead” bottlenose dolphins that stranded from 2010 to 2014 during what researcher call an “unusual mortality event,” an abrupt increase in the number of dead dolphins found.

“These dolphins had some of the most severe lung lesions I have ever seen,” said Kathleen Colegrove, lead veterinary pathologist in study.

“The dolphins were swimming in oil,” said Stephanie Venn-Watson, National Marine Mammal Foundation, the lead author. The deaths occurred from 2010 to 2014 in the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama waters “most heavily oiled” by the spill, she said. “While the number (of stranded dolphins found) may seem low, it’s a high number in the dolphin world.”

Other feasible causes of the diseases and lesions were eliminated in the study, Venn-Watson said.

“Since 2010, a number of new safety and environmental standards have been put in place, and the industry has invested billions in new spill-prevention and containment technologies and equipment, making energy development safer now than it has ever been,” said Nicolette Nye, spokeswoman for the National Ocean Industries Association, an offshore energy industry advocate.

“Ocean industries — including energy development, tourism and fishing – and the natural environment have all thrived alongside each other for decades,” she added.

The study’s findings are incredibly alarming but not surprising, said South Carolina Coastal Conservation League program director Katie Zimmerman.

She referred to federal and state studies that found Lowcountry dolphins and other sea life have been made sick absorbing man-made contaminants.

“Dolphins in this ecosystem may be even more susceptible to disturbance in their habitat, given the high percentage of the population that has been considered compromised in health,” Zimmerman said.

“Bottlenose dolphins in Charleston are a sentinel species and provide information on the overall health of the environment. Along with the dolphin population, Charleston’s human population of residents and tourists rely heavily on the waterways for recreation, work, and sustenance,” she said.

Zimmerman called on decision-makers to be “cognizant of the irreparable and horrific damage he or she would be allowing by approving seismic testing leading to offshore drilling.”

More than 50 coastal municipalities and organizations so far have opposed exploration and drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, including at least 18 in South Carolina. U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., also has publicly come out in opposition. But Gov. Nikki Haley, as well as the majority of state and congressional lawmakers, have publicly supported the testing.

Nearly 100,000 dolphins were believed to be roaming offshore or inshore off Atlantic states before a lethal virus struck in the past two years. More than 1,500 have turned up dead, including more than 150 here.

The virus now appears to be waning, but scientists are watching closely as waters warm and migrating pods move.

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