Biloxi – The Obama administration has issued a gag order on data over the recent spike of dead dolphins, including many stillborn infants, washing up on Mississippi and Alabama shorelines, and scientists say the restriction undermines the scientific process.
An abnormal dolphin mortality this year along the Gulf coast has become part of a federal criminal investigation over last year’s BP oil spill disaster and as a result, has led the US government to clamp down on biologists’ findings, with orders to keep the results confidential. The dolphin die-off, labeled an “unusual mortality event (UME),” resulted in wildlife biologists being contracted by the National Marine Fisheries Service to record the recent spike in dolphin deaths by collecting tissue samples and specimens for the agency, but late last month were privately ordered to keep their results under wraps. Reuters has obtained a copy of the agency letter that states, in part: “Because of the seriousness of the legal case, no data or findings may be released, presented or discussed outside the UME investigative team without prior approval.” One biologist involved with tracking dolphin mortalities for over 20 years and speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters that: “It throws accountability right out the window. We are confused and … we are angry because they claim they want teamwork, but at the same time they are leaving the marine experts out of the loop completely.” Some scientists said they have received a personal rebuke from government officials about “speaking out of turn” to the media over attempts at determining the dolphins’ deaths. Additionally, these scientists say the collected specimens and samples are being turned over to the government for evaluation under a deal that omits independent scientists from the final results of lab tests. Almost 200 dead bottlenose dolphin bodies have been found since mid-January through this week along shorelines of Gulf coast states, including Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, Reuters notes. About half of the carcasses are newborns or stillborn infants. That number is around 14 times the average numbers recorded during the same time frame between 2002 and 2007 and has coincidentally occurred during the first calving season since the BP Deepwater Horizon debacle last year in the Gulf. Although many of the dolphin specimens recently collected show no outward signs of oil contamination, lab analysis is crucial in helping to determine their deaths. Some experts believe the recent surge of deaths is the result of dolphins inhaling or ingesting oil during the oil spill, the results of which are just now beginning to show their toll, including a possible upsurge in dolphin miscarriages. The recent spike in dolphin deaths has compounded the dolphin mortality problem, as scientists were already busy attempting to determine the deaths of nearly 90 dead dolphins, mostly adults, that washed up along the US Gulf coast during the weeks and months after the BP disaster. Some are questioning the Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and its delay in providing dolphin samples to laboratories. “It is surprising that it has been almost a full year since the spill, and they still haven’t selected labs for this kind of work,” said Ruth Carmichael, of the independent Dauphin Island Sea Lab, located in Alabama, according to Reuters. “I can only hope that this process is a good thing. I just don’t know. This is an unfortunate situation,” she added. Officials with the NOAA state the confidentiality measures are an integral part of the current investigation over the BP oil spill. “We are treating the evidence, which are the dolphin samples, like a murder case,” said Dr. Erin Fougeres, a Fisheries Service marine biologist, Reuters notes. “The chain of custody is being closely watched. Every dolphin sample is considered evidence in the BP case now,” she added.