News Column

Shutdown Hobbles Probe Into Dolphin Die-off

October 10, 2013

Tamara Dietrich, Daily Press

dolphin
Dolphin (file photo)

Oct. 10--The deadly virus that's been savaging bottlenose dolphin populations along the mid-Atlantic for months has also taken a toll on the Stranding Response Team in Virginia charged with recovering the carcasses for study.

Virginia has borne the brunt of the epidemic, and the team is not only overworked but has already burned through its federal funding for the year as it hustles to handle more than 300 beachings in the state -- nearly five times what it sees in a typical year -- with more expected through December as stocks migrate south.

Now the shutdown of the federal government is hobbling local responders even more, as well as the federal investigation into the epidemic, as they struggle to deal with what experts say is the worst dolphin die-off in state history.

"Our oversight agencies that are in charge of marine mammal response are NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the National Marine Fisheries (Service) -- and they're all gone, they're not working," said Mark Swingle, director of research and conservation at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach.

The NMFS is part of NOAA, which operates a network of marine mammal stranding teams around the country.

Swingle's team of six full-time employees and a loose army of about 65 volunteers still respond every day to strandings in Virginia. They still retrieve carcasses for necropsy, take tissue samples to ship off to federal labs for further study. But now those labs are closed.

"While we're collecting samples right now, we're not sending any samples out," Swingle said. "We're storing them until we can do something with them. The analysis of the samples is not happening right now."

The Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit international environmental action group, warned Tuesday that the stalemate over the shutdown has led to furloughs of many of the biologists and officials at NOAA leading the probe into the mass die-off, threatening the ongoing investigation into its cause and extent.

Because the strandings were officially designated an Unusual Mortality Event, or UME, in August by the NMFS, federal experts -- including several from the Smithsonian Institution -- have been assisting the Virginia team with necropsies.

But Swingle said the shutdown has sent many of those federal experts packing, while others scheduled to arrive shortly might not make it as their federal travel funds dry up.

"We have people in place for the next week or so," Swingle said. "Then there's no funding to make that happen."

Then there are the countless boots on the beaches that Swingle calls "cooperators" and are the eyes and ears for stranding reports -- lifeguards, patrol people, even the general public.

On federal beaches -- in Virginia, such areas as the Chincoteague, Eastern Shore, Fisherman Island and Back Bay national wildlife refuges -- these cooperators are typically federal rangers. And they're gone, too.

"There's no personnel there," said Swingle. "Staff were essentially serving those beaches on a daily basis. Those are hot spots. Those are areas where a lot of animals are stranding. We're just not getting the information. Those are the kinds of things having an impact."

While NOAA is shuttered, Swingle said it's not possible to get an updated official number of total strandings, but it's well over 600. More than half washed up in the commonwealth, including 14 in the last week alone.

Virginia sees about 64 stranded dolphins in a typical year, he said. The last dolphin die-off in the mid-Atlantic occurred in 1987 and into 1988 and involved about 740 strandings -- some 250 of those in Virginia. The culprit then, as now, is the morbillivirus, which causes a measles-like disease that suppresses the dolphin's immune system. Twenty-five years ago, it devastated bottlenose stocks.

But there are other numbers that concern Swingle and stranding teams around the country. His federal money depleted, he said he applied for $60,000 in emergency funds from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

"We assume it's being held up," said Swingle. "But we haven't seen a response yet, so we're still waiting."

An even worse blow is that President Barack Obama's FY2014 budget request defunds marine mammal stranding teams altogether.

For 2013, the Virginia team got just under $100,000 from the NOAA Fisheries John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program, which Swingle said provided nearly 25 percent of his annual budget.

"For the first time, we did not get a grant from this fund in the coming year," said Swingle. "And that's going to have a tremendous impact on us."

And a ripple effect in other areas, he said.

"It's a shame," said Swingle. "It's really not the right thing to do, in my opinion, and I think funding for ocean science, and particularly for this type of ocean science -- marine mammals -- is often in the forefront of our science and our regulation and our legislation about protecting ocean resources. ... Data collected is used in fisheries management, monitoring and management of shipping, planning for new offshore resources like wind energy development -- all those things rely on data collected by the stranding network."

His team is lucky, he said, that the Aquarium's foundation has the assets to support them "for the moment," and donors have stepped up as they respond to the viral epidemic.

"This event is unprecedented, really, in the state," Swingle said. "We've never seen anything like it before. We've gone well past the magnitude of the event from 1987 .. and it's not shown any signs of stopping."

Dietrich can be reached by phone at 757-247-7892.

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(c)2013 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

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Source: (c)2013 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)


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