Bottlenose dolphins are washing up on mid-Atlantic beaches in staggering numbers this summer. In response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has declared an "unusual mortality event," and researchers say the death rate is seven times higher than normal for the East Coast in July.
"This is the highest number that we have had for this time of year since 1987," Susan Barco, research coordinator for the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center told USA Today. And what happened in '87? Morbillivirus, a virus related to measles, killed over 740 dolphins along the East Coast in a three month span. According to the Press of Atlantic City, four of the 28 dolphins that washed up in New Jersey last month had the morbillivirus, with lab tests pending for the rest of the carcasses.
“The minute (the dolphins) started coming in, there were similarities (to the 1987 outbreak),” Bob Schoelkopf, founding director of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, told the Press of Atlantic City. The huge number of strandings has put an enormous financial strain on groups like his that lack institutional backing, but the NOAA's declaration of an "unusual mortality event" will direct some federal funding to the Center.
An “unusual mortality event” is rare; the Press of Atlantic City reports that only 59 have been declared nationwide since 1991. This month's declaration comes after a particularly deadly month for bottlenose dolphins, with at least 124 strandings reported from Virginia to New York since July. Last month, 13 bottlenose strandings were reported on Long Island from Long Beach to Montauk, along with one in Coney Island and one in the Rockaway, Newsday reports.
So far this year, 201 dolphins have been reported stranded. Locally, the year started on a grim note with a poor dolphin dying in the Gowanus Canal.
NOAA says it's too early to attribute the death toll to Morbillvirus, and cautions that "there are no unifying gross necropsy findings, although several dolphins have presented with pulmonary lesions... Based on the rapid increase in strandings over the last two weeks and the geographic extent of these mortalities, an infectious pathogen is at the top of the list of potential causes for this UME, but all potential causes of these mortalities will be evaluated."
To report a live or dead stranded dolphin in the Northeast U.S., call the local marine mammal stranding network (1-866-755-6622).