Dolphins and whales (animals known as cetaceans) have been washing up dead along the northern Gulf of Mexico in alarmingly high numbers throughout 2010 and 2011.The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is investigating the “Unusual Mortality Event” (UME) to minimize the amount of deaths, determine the cause of the deaths and their effect on populations, and also to identify the role of physical, chemical and biological environmental parameters.
According to NOAA’s report, 2010-2011 Cetacean Unusual Mortality Event in Northern Gulf of Mexico, from January 2010 to the most recently released data on October 10, 2011, there have been 562 cetacean “strandings” in the northern Gulf of Mexico, specifically from the Texas/Louisiana border through Franklin County, Florida, which is located in the state’s panhandle. A “stranding” is defined as a cetacean found on the beach either deceased or still alive but unable to get back into the water and in need of medical attention. Of the 562 strandings found along the northern Gulf throughout 2010 and 2011, a mere 4% have been alive; the remaining 96% were deceased.
To emphasize how abnormal 562 strandings is for a 22-month time period, NOAA’s report includes a table breaking down what the average strandings were from 2002 to 2009.
The average cetacean strandings for the month of April 2002-2009 was 11.5—but in April 2010 there were 40 strandings and in April 2011, there were 39. The average strandings for September 2002-2009 was 4—but in September 2010, there were 17 and in September 2011, there were 15. Nine strandings have already been recorded for the first ten days of October 2011, when the 2002-2009 average for the entire month was only four.
Also shocking is the rate of premature, stillborn and neonatal dolphin strandings found in the beginning months of 2011. Compared to an average 2.2 strandings for February 2002-2007, and a lower-than-average stranding report of 1 in February 2010, a disturbing 35 strandings of premature, stillborn or neonatal dolphins were reported in February 2011. Thirty-two strandings were reported in March 2011 compared to an average of 6.3 during 2002-2007.
Altogether, 2010 and 2011 have so far had almost four times more cetacean strandings than what has been average for the majority of the decade. NOAA adds that “since not all cetaceans that have died will wash ashore and be found, the number reported stranded is likely a fraction of the total number of cetaceans that have died during the UME.”
Though the investigation is ongoing and no definitive cause has yet been identified for the increase in cetacean strandings in the northern Gulf, the direct or indirect effects of the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill, biotoxins and infectious diseases are all being considered as possible reasons for the current UME.
“These rigorous investigations may take several more months, if not years, to complete,” NOAA states on its website, along with an affirmation to “make every effort to make data available to the public as soon as it is legally and scientifically appropriate and possible.”