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Although originally estimated at far less, the dead and dying dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico have continued to grow. At least 138 dolphins have been found dead this year, nearly half of them newborn or premature calves.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, scientists say. Many more dolphins are dying in the Gulf than are officially counted. New research released last month suggests that the average number for most species may be 50 times higher than what’s currently being reported. And that is a conservative estimate according to researchers. What this means is that just in 2011, more than 6,500 dolphins have died. For some species of the mammal, that rate is 250 times higher than normal.
The media continues to downplay the environmental impact of the BP oil disaster last year. The Obama administration is readily handing out offshore drilling permits again and our collective memory has been wiped clean of the months-long disaster that shot millions of oil into the Gulf. The media and proponents of offshore drilling have pointed to the low numbers of wildlife and mammal mortalities immediately after the spill as a justification for the continued oil presence in the Gulf. Even though it is nearly a year later, it difficult to conceive of another reason for the dramatically large increase in dolphin deaths.
National Resources Defense Council’s Michael Jasny talked about the dangerous long term effects of the large number of dead dolphins in his blog following the release of the research. “This frightening math makes determining the provenance of the 130 stranded animals all the more urgent. As I’ve said before, the dolphin communities that have made their homes in the Gulf’s bays, sounds, and estuaries are small and semi-isolated, and the death of even a few babies can have outsized effects on the group. The shelf and offshore populations are larger but not vast, and the death of hundreds, let alone thousands, of animals would far exceed the government’s estimate of what they can reasonably sustain. “
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokeswoman said the agency is looking at the new data, but that it has always pointed out that the true number of dead mammals is much higher than what washes onshore. “We’ve been saying for a long time, a lot of marine mammals die in the ocean that we never will see.” There are many reasons that the deaths of marine mammals are not readily identified. Primarily sea mammals this size that die are quickly consumed by other predator fish or sink to the bottom of the ocean.
Identifying a cause of death for the dolphins could potentially take months, even with the what-seems- obvious large oil spill in the background. Oil exposure can disrupt the reproduction in animals. However, the increase in deaths could be due to an infectious disease, their mothers’ exposure to unrelated toxins, or a host of other possible explanations.
Whatever the case may be, it seems clear that even though it has been a year since the oil spill—the far-reaching consequences still are not fully known and likely will not for many years.