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SC dolphin strandings continue, science slows because of the coronavirus

dolphins

The coronavirus is making it tougher to respond to dolphin and whale strandings. The dolphin above shows teeth marks from a fight. Lowcountry Marine Mammal Netowrok/Provided

A struggling young dolphin washed up on the Kiawah Island beach over the weekend as a smaller one circled offshore. People tried to push it back but it kept returning.

Sickness or pollution — no one is likely to learn what caused the bottlenose to strand, and that's one of the fallouts of the coronavirus. 

The NOAA Coastal Ocean Science forensics lab is shut down at Fort Johnson near Charleston because of the virus. Its staff is doing what work they can from home. The three field workers responding to strandings for the Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network are driving their own cars because federal cars assigned to them aren't available.

They can do little more than take basic measurements and make sure the animal is buried, sometimes using their own shovels. On Kiawah, they brought in a veterinarian to euthanize the animal because the repeated wash-ups showed it was too sick to make it.

"God forbid we have a large whale or a mass stranding," said Lauren Rust of the network. "This is a huge forensics loss, a large gap in data."

That's more important than people might think. Already in 2020 at least seven bottlenose dolphins, three pilot whales, two spotted dolphins, a pygmy sperm whale and a Cuvier's beaked whale have washed up in South Carolina.

In the fall, five pilot whales beached on Edisto Island over a single weekend.

Fewer dolphins inhabit the waters around Charleston than did in the past for a number of reasons, from boat strikes in the busy waters to entanglements with fishing gear.

But they can also die from contamination or a virus, and that can be bad news for people who live along the coast. Because the sea mammals are so close to humans in some ways, they are a prime "canary in the coal mine" of trouble in the water.

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A virus that broke out from 2013 to 2015 along the East Coast killed more than 1,600 dolphins, including most of the 178 deaths recorded in South Carolina, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website.

The state’s resident dolphin population is estimated to be fewer than 300, and a more serious die-off could have been devastating, biologists say.

The NOAA lab does the forensics to determine if there's a disease involved. Because of federal cuts, most of the field work has been turned over to the network, run under the auspices of Coastal Carolina University but dependent on grants and donations. Find them online at lmmn.org.

If a mass stranding were to occur, the coronavirus social distancing guidelines would limit how quickly and how many people could respond. Because of the possibility of disease, protective gear is needed to do the work. That's now harder to come by because of the virus outbreak.

"Obviously, a mass stranding is a big concern because they cannot have a lot of people together with COVID-19," said Wayne McFee, a National Ocean Service marine mammal stranding program scientist based at Fort Johnson. "Unfortunately, animals would have to be buried as best as they could."

Rust said that when there is a response, it's going be a slow one.

"There's going to be more dead animals left on the beach longer," she said.

Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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