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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

Doctors to Dolphins: How Did the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill Affect Gulf Dolphins?

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Researchers corral two dolphins in Barataria Bay, Louisiana.

Researchers corral two dolphins in nets in Barataria Bay, La., to determine the status of their health after the 2010 oil spill there. Credit: NOAA.

A small fleet of boats left the docks at Grand Isle, La. at 7 a.m. Within 30 minutes, researchers had encircled two male dolphins with a net and jumped into the murky, waist-deep water to grab the dolphins and keep them calm during the checkup aboard a research vessel.

Veterinary scientists then began to examine their patients: measuring the dolphins’ length and weight; performing an external exam and—with the help of an ultrasound—an internal exam; and collecting samples of blood, blubber, urine, feces, and teeth (for aging).

Taking a blood sample from one dolphin.

Veterinary scientists take a blood sample from a dolphin as part of an overall health assessment. Credit: NOAA.

This marine mammal health exam took place on August 15, about a year after waves of oil had flowed through the waters during the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. A team of 50 scientists formed the effort behind it, joining forces across federal, state, academic, and private institutions to assess the health of wild dolphins from Barataria Bay, La., an area that had been heavily exposed to oil from the previous year’s spill.

The concern was that dolphins could potentially suffer a variety of short- and long-term health impacts after breathing in fumes of oil or ingesting it in prey. As part of a natural resource damage assessment [leaves this blog], NOAA, the other trustees, and their partners designed a study to compare the health of dolphins from an area contaminated by the oil spill (Barataria Bay) with an area that did not experience oiling (Sarasota, Fla.).

Photographing a dolphin's dorsal fin.

A team of researchers photographs a dolphin’s dorsal fin as a means of identifying the individual. Credit: NOAA.

Before releasing the dolphins back into the wild, researchers took photos of each one’s dorsal fin, which acts like a fingerprint to identify individual dolphins. They also attached satellite and radio tags to allow researchers to track the dolphins and better understand their movement and home range patterns. The entire process took about an hour before the dolphins were returned safely back to the bay.

This process is being repeated on approximately 30 dolphins from Barataria Bay.  Researchers look forward to getting the results of these health assessments over the next several months to try to understand what impact the oil may have had on Louisiana’s dolphins. If the dolphins are suffering negative effects from the oil, NOAA and the other resource trustees, with public input, will identify restoration actions to offset these impacts [leaves this blog]. Submit your own idea for restoring dolphins, other wildlife, and habitats that might have been impacted by the oil. [leaves this blog]

Several members of the media came along to observe the assessment. You can find video and stories about the dolphin health exams by typing search terms such as “dolphins examined to assess gulf recovery” into a search engine.

To keep up with the latest on the damage assessment from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill, join our mailing list [leaves this blog] or subscribe to our RSS news feed [leaves this blog].

–Tom Brosnan, Communications Branch Chief in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Assessment and Restoration Division

Author: Tom Brosnan

Tom Brosnan is an environmental scientist who is currently the Communications Manager for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, Assessment and Restoration Division (ARD). From 1999-2008 he was a staff scientist and then the Northeast and Great Lakes Branch Chief for ARD, where he oversaw and participated in many Natural Resource Damage Assessments for waste sites and oil spills.

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