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FAQs on the 2013 Bottlenose Dolphin UME in Florida

NOAA Fisheries has declared an Unusual Mortality Event due to increased bottlenose dolphin strandings in the Indian River Lagoon System along the east coast of Florida beginning in January 2013.

Q: What is an Unusual Mortality Event?

A: An Unusual Mortality Event (UME) is defined under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as a stranding event that is unexpected, involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population, and demands immediate response. There are seven criteria used to determine whether a mortality event is "unusual". If the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events (Working Group), a group of marine mammal health experts, determines that an event meets one or more of the criteria, then an official UME is declared.

Q:  What criteria have been met?

A: The Working Group concluded that at least two of the seven criteria established for designation of a UME have been met.  These mortalities are unusual because there is a marked increase in the magnitude or a marked change in the nature of morbidity, mortality or strandings when compared with prior records and affected animals exhibit similar or unusual pathologic findings, behavior patterns, clinical signs, or general physical condition.  

Q: How widespread is this Unusual Mortality Event?

A: Currently, increased strandings of bottlenose dolphins have occurred in the northern and central Indian River Lagoon system along the east coast of Florida in Brevard County. 

Q: When did the first reports of increased strandings of bottlenose dolphins come in?

A: In January, Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute started to notice an increase in bottlenose dolphin strandings in the region.  The increased strandings have continued to the present. 

Q: What are the findings in stranded animals?

A: At this time, all age classes of bottlenose dolphins are involved but the majority of animals are older adults and a few juveniles.  The most significant and unifying gross necropsy finding is emaciation.

Q: Have other marine mammals been affected by this die-off event?

A: On April 10, 2013, a UME was declared for increased manatee strandings along the east coast of Florida.  From July 25, 2012 to June 14, 2013, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWCC) has documented 250 manatee deaths in Brevard County. Researchers suspect 111 of those deaths are attributed to the UME.  Approximately 250 brown pelicans also died from mid-February to mid-April 2013. The cause(s) of these deaths are currently unknown.

Q: What is the current bottlenose dolphin population in the Indian River Lagoon?

A: The best estimate for abundance for the Indian River Lagoon bottlenose dolphin stock as a whole is 662 individuals based upon Durden et al. 2011. The most recent NOAA Fisheries Stock Assessment Report for this stock is from 2009 and had insufficient data to calculate a minimum population estimate.

Q: What are the next steps in the investigation now that an Unusual Mortality Event has been declared?

A:  As part of the UME investigation process, an independent team of scientists (Investigative Team) is being assembled to coordinate with the Working Group to review the data collected and to determine potential next steps.  The Investigative Team will develop the investigative plan.  The Investigative Team will also coordinate its investigation with the on-going Manatee UME investigation.  The investigation may require months, or even years of data collection, analysis, and interpretation.

Q: What additional resources are now available to pursue the investigation, since an Unusual Mortality Event has been declared?

A:  A UME declaration provides additional expertise from the Working Group (an international and multi-disciplinary team of scientists), additional partners, and access to additional funding through the National Contingency Fund.  In addition, a detailed investigative plan for the investigation will now be developed that may include more targeted necropsies; further testing of samples for biotoxins, bacterial or viral agents; and diagnostic pathology services.   Finally, this process will provide national and international scientific review of findings and interpretations.

Q: Will you be collecting additional biological and environmental information?

A:  The Stranding Network will continue to collect and analyze samples as needed to evaluate the situation.  The Working Group will decide whether additional information is needed.  

Q: When will you have some results to share?

A:  The Investigative Team is in the process of developing an investigative plan to test samples from stranded animals.  Blood and tissues samples will be tested for bacterial, viral, toxin and other infectious agents.   You can track the progress of our investigation from our Unusual Mortality Event website.

Q: What is the risk to humans?

A:  Bottlenose dolphins are wild animals and may injure people if approached closely.  It is not clear at this time if there is any infectious disease risk to human health through contact with these animals.

Q: Have there been any specific instances of humans contracting a disease from the bottlenose dolphins?

A: To date, no cases of human illness have been reported from this current event. 

Q: Are there any risks to pets?

A: Pets should always be kept away from marine mammals, particularly diseased or dead marine mammals. 

Q: How many bottlenose dolphin Unusual Mortality Events have previously occurred in the Indian River Lagoon System?

A: The Indian River Lagoon dolphin population has seen two previous UMEs, in 2001 and 2008. In both cases, the cause of the die off was investigated but not determined.  Also in both cases, dolphin carcasses were found to be emaciated. To date, 59 UMEs have been formally declared in U.S. waters since 1991 (including the current UME).

Q: How many marine Unusual Mortality Events have previously occurred in Florida?

A: This is the 19th Unusual Mortality Event to occur in Florida since the Program was established in 1991.  All previous events involved bottlenose dolphins, manatees, and right whales. 

Q: Where can I find additional information on bottlenose dolphins and other Unusual Mortality Events?

A:  You can visit the national NOAA Fisheries Protected Resources website at

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/bottlenosedolphin.htm

http://sero.nmfs.noaa.gov/protected_resources/bottlenose_dolphins/index.html

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/health/mmume/

Q: What should people do if they encounter a sick dolphin stranded on the beach?

A:   Please immediately contact your local stranding network or local authorities to report a live or dead stranded dolphin (in the Southeast U.S., call 1-877-WHALE HELP).

Q: What should people do if they witness harassment of a dolphin in the water or on the beach?

A: To report violations or for more information on NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement call the toll-free number: 1-800-853-1964.

Q:  What is the link, if any, of these marine mammal illness/deaths to seafood safety?

A:  State and Federal Agencies continue to conduct routine testing of seafood for consumer safety while NOAA Fisheries is working with a group of wildlife researchers to test for a wide range of possible disease factors causing this bottlenose dolphin UME.  No link has been established at this time between these bottlenose dolphin strandings and any potential seafood safety issues.

Q: What is the Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund?

A:  The MMPA’s Section 405 (16 USC  1421d) establishes the Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event Fund and describes its purposes and how donations can be made to the Fund.  The fund: “shall be available only for use by the Secretary of Commerce, in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior:

The National Contingency Plan for Response to Unusual Marine Mammal Mortality Events outlines the types of expenses that are reimbursable under the fund and the process for requesting reimbursement.

Additional information on the Unusual Mortality Event Contingency fund can be found on our UME website.

Q: How can deposits be made into the Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund?

A: Deposits can be made into Fund by the following:

 

Updated: July 24, 2013