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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Deadly Spill For Cetaceans?

Air Date: Week of

Scientists are struggling to measure the full effect of the BP oil spill. A new study says the impact on marine mammals has been greatly underestimated. And as the government builds its case against BP, it wants scientists to stay quiet about what’s killing dolphins. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.


GELLERMAN: A new study by marine mammal scientists says the number of whales, dolphins, and porpoises killed by last year's BP oil disaster may have been greatly underestimated. The study points out the difficult job scientists face as they struggle to measure the full effect of the oil on the Gulf of Mexico’s ecosystem. And as Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports, that job is even more complicated because of government secrecy that’s keeping some scientific data from public view.

YOUNG: It seems like a simple question: how many whales, porpoises, and dolphins died during BP’s oil spill? NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has a detailed online map showing when and where every carcass washed ashore or was found floating at sea during the spill. The total: 101 of those “strandings,” as they’re called. But as a new study points out, that number does not answer the question.

KRAUS: Using strandings as a proxy for estimating the damage from something like the oil spill is a fool’s errand. It simply will not work biologically.

YOUNG: That’s Scott Kraus, who leads research at the New England Aquarium and who co-authored the study in the journal Conservation Letters. The study looked at population estimates for Gulf species, and past research on how the number of strandings compares with actual mortality rates. As Kraus describes it, it’s a little like an episode of CSI with sea creatures, only most of the bodies are missing.

KRAUS: The animals that come up on the beach are animals that happen to float after death. They also happen to be carried by currents or winds toward shore. So the occurrence of a whale or a dolphin on a beach is serendipitous in many ways. So stranding data may capture 2% of all mortality in a wild population - it may underestimate actual mortality by 50 times.

YOUNG: Fifty times the body count during the spill would mean as many as five thousand fifty dead whales, dolphins, and porpoises. For sperm whales, a highly endangered species, Kraus and his coauthors conclude as many as 29 deaths would be plausible. But the study’s main point is: no one knows the real numbers. And highlighting those that happened to wash ashore can give a false impression of the spill’s impact.

NOAA map of dead dolphins that have washed ashore this year. (Map created by NOAA) NOAA is making public data about where dead dolphin calves have washed ashore this year, but they agency is withholding information about the possible cause of those deaths.

KRAUS: We can wave our arms in the air all we want about how this was a minimal oil spill or it had minimal impact. It’s just not - you couldn’t say that with a straight face as a scientist.

YOUNG: Another mystery surrounds the high number of animals washing ashore in recent months. One hundred thirty four dead bottlenose dolphins, mostly calves, have been found so far this year - many times the average from years past. Scientists are analyzing carcasses and tissue samples to see if there’s any link to the oil spill.

However, the public might not learn what those scientists learn. The government sent a letter asking scientists not to talk about their findings. The reason: dead dolphins could become evidence in a potential criminal case against BP. NOAA public affairs officer Ben Sherman says that requires some secrecy.

SHERMAN: We are party to civil and criminal cases that are filed on behalf of the American public against responsible parties. And as such, you have to be selective in what information you release publicly in advance of a potential legal case. The public’s right to know is important. But the public’s right to also collect damages from the responsible party is equally important.

YOUNG: Why is it necessary to withhold certain information?

Researchers document one of the many dead dolphin calves that have washed ashore this year. Scientists searching for a cause have been told not to talk about their findings. (Institute for Marine Mammal Studies)

SHERMAN: Well it’s kind of like a card game. You don’t show your cards to your opponent until you’re ready to collect the chips off the table if you’re playing poker.

YOUNG: Some advocacy groups and scientists say the government is withholding too much information. John Kostyack is vice president for conservation at the National Wildlife Federation.

KOSTYACK: Well there is an unfortunate tendency toward secrecy. And we have a freedom of information law in this country that says there’s a presumption that government records would be made available to the public. So we’ve been scratching our heads, wondering why basic scientific information about the cause of dolphin deaths would interfere with their criminal prosecution down there, and we just don’t see it.

YOUNG: Some secrecy also applies to scientists helping compile what’s known as the Natural Resources Damage Assessment. That tally of harm from an oil spill - required under the Oil Pollution Act - helps determine the fines the government collects. Scientists contributing to that effort are frequently asked not to publish or discuss their findings until the official assessment is complete. Stan Senner of the Ocean Conservancy says that’s creating some tension in the scientific community.

A whale swimming in an oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico.(Photo by John L. Wathen Flight provided by SouthWings)

SENNER: The scientists - they’re used to sharing what they’re doing with their colleagues, bouncing results off each other, and proving their studies and the like. And so to be constrained by a legal situation was not something that they were happy about.

YOUNG: Senner has seen this before. He worked for the Alaska government’s restoration program after the Exxon Valdez spill. He struggled then to strike a balance between prosecutors asking to keep evidence confidential and the public asking for more information about their environment.

SENNER: I would say with the Exxon Valdez that the confidentiality in those early years left a bad taste for a lot of people that continues to this day twenty years later. I still go back and get questions from people about, you know, why was that necessary and they’re still angry about it today.

YOUNG: Striking the right balance between the legal and scientific goals is just part of the monumental task of proving the spill’s damage. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young.



Study on whale and dolphin deaths

NOAA numbers on dolphin deaths

NOAA interactive map of marine mammal strandings during the spill


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