NOAA 03-R438
Contact: Ben Sherman
NOAA News Releases 2003
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A high level of strandings and unexplained skin lesions in dolphins found in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon has triggered an investigation of dolphin health. As a result, marine mammal scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Center for Coastal, Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research; Florida’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution; and marine mammal experts nationwide are studying dolphins in Florida and South Carolina to determine why these effects are occurring.

Scientists are using a floating “doctor’s clinic” to run a battery of medical tests on dolphins in the two states. Last month, 50 researchers on eight boats spent two weeks capturing, studying and releasing 43 bottlenose dolphins in Florida’s Indian River. A similar operation is scheduled for Charleston, South Carolina, August 11-22. The comprehensive health exams include clinical health measurements, immunological profiles, and contaminant measurements to evaluate each mammal’s health. Scientists will be looking for serious health threats, and exploring possible linkages of the illnesses to environmental stressors.

The project was prompted by a high level of strandings and unexplained skin lesions in dolphins found in Florida’s Indian River Lagoon. The data from South Carolina will be compared to the Florida data to determine the health differences between the two populations. Data from this five-year assessment will allow scientists to make comparisons between two distinct populations and correlate environmental factors that may influence health.

“If dolphins are not doing well, it says something about what humans may be exposed to,” said Patricia Fair, a Charleston-based scientist for NOAA. She said the scientists are looking for signs of emerging diseases and chemical body burdens that may be making the dolphins sick. Scientists also will test for diseases more common to people, but becoming more prominent in dolphins.

The research effort is being led by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution under Dr. Greg Bossart , and NOAA’s Center for Coastal and Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research in Charleston, South Carolina under Dr. Patricia Fair.

NOAA is dedicated to exploring, understanding, conserving and restoring the nation’s coasts and oceans. It balances environmental protection with economic prosperity in fulfilling its mission of promoting safe navigation, supporting coastal communities, sustaining coastal habitats and mitigating coastal hazards.

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