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Federal government finally stepping in to investigate dolphin deaths in the Gulf

Rare dolphin rescued from Biloxi beach is being treated in Gulfport

A rough-toothed dolphin found stranded in Biloxi Friday morning is being treated for possible pneumonia at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport.
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A rough-toothed dolphin found stranded in Biloxi Friday morning is being treated for possible pneumonia at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport.

In the wake of the Bonnet Carré Spillway opening, the federal government is acknowledging the high dolphin death rate in the Gulf of Mexico as an “unusual mortality event,” which will bring experts, resources, equipment and funding for an investigation by the National Atmospheric and Oceanographic Administration.

NOAA announced the designation Friday for the states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

The announcement from NOAA notes:

279 dolphin strandings between Feb. 1 and May 31, compared to 57 in average years and 87 for previous high-mortality years.

Similar patterns in the dead dolphins, including visible skin lesions from freshwater exposure.

In Mississippi, where 129 dolphin strandings have been reported, NOAA partners with the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport for its investigations.

Freshwater is flowing into the western Mississippi Sound from the Bonnet Carré, which first empties into Lake Ponchartrain, and from rivers swollen with this year’s heavy rainfall, including the Pascagoula River.

IMMS has been retrieving dolphin carcasses for necropsies performed by veterinarians with Mississippi State University, who partner with the education nonprofit and work out of its Gulfport facilities.

Moby Solangi, IMMS executive director and president, has been sounding the alarm for months about high dolphin death rates and is relieved NOAA is stepping in.

“We’ll be helping them conduct this investigation,” Solangi said. “We’re already been doing it. The wheels of government take time.

“Now that they’ve seen this has crossed their threshold for dolphin mortality . . . the federal government will provide resources to find a common cause of these mortalities.”

The Bonnet Carré Spillway poured nearly six trillion gallons of fresh water into the Mississippi Sound. Now thousands of oysters and other wildlife are dying. Mississippi oyster farmers are seeing mortality rates up to more than 90-percent.

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Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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