The BP oil spill and the dispersants used to clean it up may be contributing to the unusually high number of dolphins dying in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a University of Central Florida scientist.
Since BP's Deepwater Horizon dumped about 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, larger-than-normal numbers of bottlenose dolphin carcasses have washed up on the Gulf coast. According to U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a total of 153 bottlenose dolphin carcasses have washed up on Gulf coasts since January. Of those, 65 were newborn, infants, stillborn or born prematurely.
Those numbers are unusually high, said Professor Graham Worthy, an expert on dolphins who ran Texas' Marine Mammal Stranding Network for a decade.
"I suspect what we might be seeing are several things coming together to form a perfect storm," Worthy said. "The cold was a very unusual circumstance, but one which dolphins can normally survive, but we may also be seeing an indirect effect stemming from the BP oil spill. If oil and the dispersants have disrupted the food chain, this may have prevented the mother dolphins from getting adequate nutrition and building up the insulating blubber they needed to withstand the cold. That type of stress could ultimately have resulted in calves dying."
Worthy is one of 27 Florida scientists studying the impact of the nation's largest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of a $10 million grant from BP. The grant was awarded to the Florida Institute of Oceanography, a coalition of scientists from public universities around the state.
The researchers are presenting preliminary findings and giving study updates today, May 25, and Thursday, May 26, at UCF's Fairwinds Alumni Center in Orlando. Worthy will make his presentation at 1:40 p.m. Thursday, May 26. For a list of the other speakers and times, visit www.fio.usf.edu.
Worthy, whose team has been studying dolphin populations in the Pensacola and Choctawatchee bays for years, has historical data that may be critical to ultimately understanding how the oil spill and clean up efforts may have impacted the dolphins.
The oil spill occurred during the dolphins' breeding season. Worthy is interested in finding out if the young population survived and, if so, how healthy it is. Another question he seeks to answer is whether the fish the dolphins consume have been impacted by the spill.
Worthy is the Hubbs Professor of Marine Mammalogy. He received his Ph.D. in 1986 from the University of Guelph in Canada and then completed post doctoral training at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he studied elephant seals, bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. He spent 11 years as a faculty member in the Department of Marine Biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston and served as the State Coordinator for the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network.