NORFOLK, Va. – Officials are trying to determine the cause of a sharp increase in dolphin deaths in Virginia and other East Coast states.
Five beached dolphins were found in Virginia alone on Thursday. In July, nearly four dozen dead dolphins were found, mostly in Norfolk and along the southern part of the Chesapeake Bay. That's up from the typical six or seven usually picked up in July by the Virginia Aquarium Stranding Response Team.
"We've had a steady number coming in at the beginning of the summer, and starting last week, the numbers spiked," Susan Barco, research coordinator for the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, told The Virginian-Pilot (http://bit.ly/11x9uEv). "We're just trying to keep our head above water."
Delaware and Maryland also have seen an uptick in dolphin deaths. According to The Press of Atlantic City, 10 dead dolphins were picked up in Delaware between June and early July, when in a typical year only five or six are recorded. In Maryland, authorities said a spike had been noticed but exact numbers of deaths were not known.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has sent inquiries to stranding centers along the East Coast to determine whether spikes have been seen elsewhere.
In New Jersey, initial necropsy results have pointed to pneumonia, but Maggie Mooney-Seus, spokeswoman for NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, was not ready to connect Virginia's die-off to what may be affecting dolphins in other states.
"We don't know at this point what has caused the upswing," she said. "Virginia is higher than New Jersey, but we don't know anything particular because we're still collecting data."
Virginia's stranding team says the elevated numbers are reminiscent off the mass deaths that occurred in 1987, when more than 750 carcasses washed ashore from New Jersey to Florida. A few years later, morbillivirus -- similar to measles -- was determined to be the culprit, as dolphins exhibited symptoms associated with measles and pneumonia.
"It's eerily familiar," Barco said of the recent strandings. "That is one virus we're looking for now."
In Virginia this year, the response team has collected the remains of 87 dolphins. The team typically picks up around 60 dolphins in an entire year.
On Thursday, Krystle Rodrique, a volunteer with the stranding team, and Liz Schell, an intern, worked to dig up the tail of a dead dolphin as waves crashed in, hampering their efforts. The team documents where the animals were found and takes photos.
Rodrique cradled the corpse, setting it down lightly on a wooden deck. Despite her gloves, the smell -- a mix of pet store and rotting fish -- will remain on her hands.
"You get used to the smell, but I never can really get it off my hands," she said. "I try to scrub them over and over again."
The sooner workers find the dolphins, the better chance they have of figuring out what is causing the deaths.
Barco said teams haven't seen any physical trauma that would indicate entanglements or sonar damage, as midfrequency naval sonar has been linked in the past to whale and dolphin deaths. Ted Brown, a spokesman for the Navy's Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, said "there has been no change or increase in sonar use that could be related" to the recent surge.
Barco said her team of 60 volunteers, eight staff members and six interns are logging extra hours and have postponed its annual dolphin count in order to keep up with the deaths. The program is funded by grants, donations and contracts, and she says it's short on time and money.
"I just put in for overtime that we can't afford to pay. We don't have a lab like some places do, so we're working out of a tent," Barco said. "This event is going to stretch us."