Scientists have for the first time made a conclusive link between the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and an unprecedented dolphin die-off along the Gulf’s northern coast.
Bottlenose dolphins in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama experienced an “unusual mortality event” beginning in February 2010 and continuing into 2014, according to the study, written by a team of 22 researchers, including scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service, Audubon Nature Institute’s Aquarium of the Americas, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and a number of marine laboratories nationwide.
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By comparing tissue samples from dead dolphins found along the northern Gulf of Mexico—including 22 from Louisiana’s Barataria Bay, one of the most heavily oiled coastal areas in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster— with similar samples taken from dead dolphins found in the states that weren’t within the BP oil footprint, the scientists discovered that stranded and dead bottlenose dolphins within the spill range had lung and adrenal lesions consistent with petroleum product exposure.
“Animals with adrenal insufficiency are less able to cope with additional stressors in their everyday lives,” said Stephanie Venn-Watson, the study’s lead author and veterinary epidemiologist at the National Marine Mammal Foundation, “and when those stressors occur, they are more likely to die.”
The dolphins in the spill-affected areas “had some of the most severe lung lesions I have seen in the over 13 years that I have been looking dead dolphin tissues from throughout the U.S.,” added Kathleen Colegrove, the study’s lead veterinary pathologist based at the University of Illinois. Only 2 percent of reference dolphins had this lesion at all.
Unsurprisingly, BP disputes the study’s findings. “The data we have seen thus far, including the new study from NOAA, do not show that oil from the Deepwater Horizon accident caused an increase in dolphin mortality,” said a spokesman for BP, Geoff Morrell.
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