MANATEE -- A local researcher is helping to determine whether the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster has damaged the health of dolphins off the Louisiana coast, near where the massive spill originated.
Randall S. Wells, 60, of Siesta Key, is helping with studies comparing the health of animals at Barataria Bay, La., which received heavy and prolonged drenching with oil, and a control group of dolphins at Sarasota Bay, which remains pristine.
Early data paint a pretty gruesome picture, but it is preliminary: Barataria Bay dolphins suffered evidence of severe lung disease, lung masses and adrenal toxicity, according to a study published last year and to which Wells contributed.
Wells, director of the Chicago Zoological Society's Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, based at Mote Marine Laboratory, is aiding federal researchers with health assessments and satellite radio tracking of bottlenose dolphins living in the northern Gulf at Barataria Bay.
He regularly surveys a control group of about 160 dolphins living in Sarasota Bay from Terra Ceia to Venice, which then are compared against their Barataria Bay counterparts, said Wells.
"The health of the dolphins in Barataria Bay was significantly worse than those in Sarasota Bay, but it would not be reasonable to say it was from Deepwater Horizon oil," said Wells, even though symptoms are consistent with what you would expect from oil exposure.
The scientific results are still unclear, pending analyses of additional data, which is expected to be needed as part of the court case still in litigation against BP, he said.
About 176 million gallons of oil escaped into the gulf from BP's blown-out oil well off the Louisiana coast during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to U.S. government estimates.
Asked about the long-term prognosis, Wells said, "I don't think we know enough yet, we must complete last year's and this year's health assessments, and see what kind of trend comes out of the data."
A review of early clinical findings showed 14 of 29, or 48 percent, of the Baratarian Bay dolphins were given a "guarded" or worse prognosis, the study said.
"In contrast to the Barataria Bay findings, 1 out of 15 dolphins, or 7 percent, sampled in 2011 from Sarasota Bay was given a 'guarded' prognosis, and all others were given good or fair prognoses," the study said.
The spill has contributed to an increasing awareness of the potential impacts of oil spills on marine animals, said Wells.
"And if it's stimulated increased collection of data on dolphin populations in the northern Gulf of Mexico, it provides us a better basis for protecting them in the future," he said.
Robert Weisberg, a researcher from the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, said that so far, there really isn't a baseline for the Gulf of Mexico that could aid in assessing the damage.
"The progress we've made is not commensurate with the magnitude of the event," he said.
One of our strengths as a nation is that help pours in from all over the U.S. during a disaster such as an oil spill or a hurricane, said Charlie Hunsicker, Manatee County's director of parks and natural resources.
Unaffected areas can provide resiliency for Gulf-wide marine species or animals, or can help to re-populate damaged areas.
"That analogy applies to Gulf-wide environments that can provide and reset the environmental clock for the damaged areas because they are resilient, diverse and abundant," he said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter@sarawrites.