As an avid bird watcher, Baton Rouge resident Tabitha Cale took advantage of her first trip to Grand Isle in May and walked along the beach looking for migratory birds.
As she searched for birds, she almost stumbled over a large, dead dolphin on the beach.
Cale, 29, who works in the field of environmental policy research, said she was aware of concerns about the aftereffects of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 and thought there would be value in reporting the find.
“I took photos and noted the location,” she said.
However, when she returned to Baton Rouge, she was surprised that it was difficult to find where to report the dolphin’s death. There was no information on the state’s websites, but she did find a link for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine mammal site and found a number to call.
Although it only took her about 15 minutes to find the information, she said she wondered if the public would have known where to look.
As people head out to the beach and the estuaries along Louisiana’s coast, there’s a chance they may find a stranded dolphin. The first step they should take is to report what they find, said Suzanne Smith, stranding and rescue coordinator with the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.
“There’s so much additional information that would be helpful,” she said.
The nature of Louisiana’s coastline, which has many inlets, marsh areas and bays, means reports need to have more details about the location.
“We don’t have a straight-shot beach we can go out to,” Smith said.
GPS coordinates and landmarks are helpful as are photographs, she said.
“We make attempts to get eyes on every single one of them,” Smith said of the stranded dolphins. “Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, with them being on the front lines, they are usually the first ones on the scene.”
Samples are taken for a study that is part of a larger work NOAA is undertaking to determine the cause of the elevated numbers of dolphins stranding and dying in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
Starting in February 2010, NOAA declared an “unusual mortality event” for dolphins and whales in the northern portion of the Gulf.
From that time until May 12, there have been 996 strandings of primarily bottlenose dolphins from the Texas/Louisiana border through Franklin County, Fla., according to NOAA.
In the past, the most common cause of large numbers of dolphins and whales dying over a short-time frame is morbillivirus and marine biotoxins like red tide. Morbillivirus are types of viruses that can cause serious diseases in several species of animals and people, including distemper in dogs and measles in people.
However, there isn’t evidence that either of these are now causing the dolphins to die or be stranded, according to NOAA.
About 13 of the 56 dolphins tested so far have shown infection with Brucella, which is a bacteria that can also affect people, cattle, goats, dogs and pigs, according to NOAA.
Blaire Mase, NOAA’s southeast region marine mammal stranding coordinator, said the investigation is continuing to see if this event with dolphins is worse than normal or how it fits into the puzzle.
However, there still are a large number of stranded and dead dolphins being found along the northern Gulf coast, particularly in Louisiana, she said.
“This is the longest UME (unusual mortality event) we’ve had in the southeast,” Mase said about the three-year event. “It is so important for people to report animals no matter how decomposed they are.”
The most important piece of information is the exact location of where the animal is found, and it’s also important for people to leave their contact information so there can be follow-up, she said.
“If it’s alive, you don’t want to push the animal back out,” Mase said. “A stranded dolphin is there on the beach for a reason.”
Smith agreed and said if a person sees a sea turtle or dolphin, don’t touch the animal because they are protected by federal law, and if they’ve stranded themselves, it’s possible they have a disease.
“Sometimes, good-intentioned people can do more harm than good and can get hurt. These are large animals,” Smith said.
The Louisiana Marine Mammal Stranding hot line, which is handled by the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, is (504) 235-3005.
The state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries number is (225) 765-2800.
The NOAA Fisheries Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding hot line is (877) 942-5343 (877-WHALE HELP).