Special Reports

Officials investigate whether oil spill killed dolphins

BILOXI, Miss. — Wildlife officials are investigating whether the Gulf oil spill had anything to do with the recent deaths of six dolphins in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

But one local expert says six deaths this time of year over such a large area containing thousands of dolphins could be natural and that initial inspection of the bodies has showed no oil contamination.

Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, said his agency found one of the dolphins on the north side of Horn Island in Mississippi on Monday. He said the body was decomposed. He said tissue samples from that and the other five, which have died since May 2, are being tested. One of the others was found in Alabama; four in Louisiana.

“We have this additional factor (oil spill) going on, so that will be tested,” Solangi said. “No, I don’t think this is an unnatural number, considering the time of year and the territory from Grand Isle, La., to Mobile, Ala. But we are not leaving that factor out and they are being tested.”

Solangi said bottlenose dolphins move into shallow water to give birth this time of year, and deaths, from calving complications or becoming stranded at low tide, are common. And these shallow-water deaths tend to be noticed more by humans, Solangi said.

There are 3,000 to 5,000 dolphins in and around Mississippi waters, Solangi said, and an estimated 75,000 in the Gulf of Mexico. They are intelligent, and at the top of their food chain, so scientists consider them a good indicator of environmental health.

Solangi said he believes “we are not yet seeing the brunt of anything oil-related” with dolphins.

“But if that oil well is not capped, we are going to see some changes in due time,” Solangi said.

Federal officials reported Monday that about a dozen birds, fouled and sickened by oil, had been rescued, and that two had been rehabilitated enough to be released. Dozens of dead sea turtles have also been found, but NOAA scientists have said after necropsies that they don’t appear to be oil related deaths, either. Federal wildlife officials said they were investigating whether overaggressive commercial fishermen might have caused the turtle deaths.

Mississippi Department of Marine Resources officials said Monday that thousands of dead menhaden found in Pascagoula last week died as a result of low oxygen levels in the water, not oil. Baitfish kills this time of year are fairly common in shallow water because large algae blooms and temperature fluctuations drop oxygen levels.