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NOAA conducts dolphin health assessment in Barataria Bay, Louisiana

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August 2-17, 2011

NOAA scientists and partners recently completed a 15 day capture and release dolphin health assessment in Barataria Bay, Louisiana.  The study, a part of the continuing Natural Resource Damage Assessment for the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, gave scientists the ability to conduct a hands-on physical exam of individual dolphins to assess potential sub-lethal, chronic, and indirect health impacts of the spill.  This study follows up on an initial pre-assessment phase of photo-identification and remote biopsy studies that documented the oil exposure of bottlenose dolphins in Barataria Bay.

Over 50 veterinarians, biologists, and wildlife epidemiologists worked together to conduct comprehensive health evaluations of 31 dolphins during the study.  Specially trained team members humanely encircled the dolphins by net, brought them to a medical vessel for a complete veterinary exam, tagged them with satellite and VHF radio tags, and then released them back into the wild.  The check-up included a physical and ultrasound exam, taking a blowhole swab, and collecting blood, skin, blubber, urine, and feces samples for further medical analyses.  Researchers will use the tags to monitor the dolphins over time, to better understand their movements, range, and preferred habitats, which may help with exposure assessment and planning for the restoration of the area.

Scientists will compare the samples they took from 31 of the resident Barataria Bay dolphins to samples collected from wild dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida, which were not exposed to oil from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.  Researchers from the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program have been studying the Sarasota dolphins for over 40 years.  In May 2011, scientists obtained samples from the Sarasota dolphins, using the same techniques, to serve as a reference site for comparison during this assessment.

An unusual mortality event (UME) has been occurring in the Northern Gulf of Mexico since February 2010.  Scientists have observed over 500 cetacean, the scientific term for dolphins and whales, strandings during the past 19 months, 113 prior to the spill and over 390 since the oil spill.  We have not yet been able to determine the cause(s) for the deaths of these animals.  Our investigation is still ongoing, and information gained during these health assessments may help us understand the causes or contributing factors to this unusual mortality event.

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