Yesterday, scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published new results from a series of studies in which they have investigated the unusually high number of dolphin deaths occurring in the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2010, scientists have conducted autopsies on dead dolphins to try and understand why they are dying.
They found significantly higher numbers of dolphins with severe lung disease and lesions on their adrenal glands in oiled areas than in non-oiled areas. Dr. Stephanie Venn-Watson described the adrenal disease as forcing dolphins to precariously balance on a ledge which cold temperatures, pregnancy and infection can push them off, resulting in death. The lesions observed in dolphins were “some of the most severe lung lesions ever seen in wild dolphins throughout the U.S.” according to lead Pathologist, Dr. Katie Colegrove. NOAA is decisive in concluding that the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster caused the dolphin deaths in the Northern Gulf: “The timing, location, and nature of the detected lesions support that contaminants from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill caused these lesions and contributed to the high numbers of dolphin deaths within this oil spill’s footprint.”
These new findings are backed up by earlier studies. One publication reported dolphins in Barataria Bay had symptoms consistent with petroleum exposure that were threatening their survival. Another study analyzed where and when dolphins were stranding, and found areas contaminated with oil in 2010 and 2011 also had the highest numbers of dolphin deaths.
As researchers continue to publish the results of studies, we will further understand the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. We will also begin to understand if impacted animals and places are recovering. Bob Spies, former chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, recently said “If we care enough to understand impacts, I hope we care enough to understand recovery.” This reminds me that understanding the impacts is only the first step in restoring the Gulf. The people who live in the Gulf will rely on it throughout their lifetimes, and long-term research and environmental monitoring will provide us with the tools we need to continue to not only hold BP accountable, but also restore the Gulf.