Water contamination study underway as concerns grow following rise in dolphin strandings

Water contamination study underway as concerns grow following rise in dolphin strandings

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Experts say they’ve seen at least 10 dolphin strandings along the South Carolina coast this month, almost double the amount they expected for April.

This concerning trend comes just as researchers are about to embark on a new study to look at the long-term impacts of stormwater runoff in local waterways.

Dolphins and otters will be the subjects of this pilot study, but the results also have implications for humans as these animals eat the same fish and shellfish.

“If we want to look at long-term effects, looking at apex predators like otters and dolphins are a good way to go,” NOAA Research Wildlife Biologist Wayne McFee said. “They tend to bioaccumulate contaminants over time.”

Researchers are looking for heavy metals in these animals, mercury, lead, and arsenic, among others.

These trace elements can cause neurological, developmental, and reproductive problems.

However, the study may also reveal pathogens impacting these populations, bacteria and viruses that could make humans sick, too.

“I think we’re at a tipping point almost of having to do something about climate change and getting ahead of that and seeing what’s going to happen in the future,” McFee said. “We are seeing more extreme, severe rain events happening and so what we want to find out whether the contaminants from runoff during these severe events are harming our coastal waterways.”

McFee anticipates the study to start in May, but researchers need the public’s help.

They are looking for reports of dead otters on the sides of roadways or sightings of live otters.

You can call the SCDNR Wildlife Hotline to make those reports. The number is 1-800-922-5431.

“With the otters, we are kind of starting from ground zero, but I really think they are a good key species and good sentinel species to determine the coastal health of our oceans,” McFee said. “In the next five years, I don’t think we will see a huge change, but I think you go out 20 to 30 years and compare things then to where they are now, our expectations are that you’re going to see changes in habitat, habitat quality, water quality and so forth if we continue on this path.”

Meanwhile, researchers having growing concerns about the cause of recent dolphin strandings.

“One thing we are concerned about are pathogens such as a virus epidemic that might be occurring,” McFee said.

“It does concern us that something within our coastal environment is going wrong, and so we try to monitor that as best we can,” McFee said.

Most of the recent strandings have occurred in Charleston County.

“It’s not unusual for us to get high numbers of strandings in Charleston County, but in one month, that’s concerning,” McFee said. “We will likely have a call with the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is another branch of NOAA, to consult with them as to what we are seeing here. If they feel like the level is high enough to declare an unusual mortality event, they will. What that entails is basically being able to provide funding for sample analysis.”

McFee said if it gets bad enough, like it did in 2013 and 2014, personnel would be flown in to help with the recovery of stranded animals.

“They [dolphins] are a good monitoring tool for looking at the health of our coastal oceans. We swim in the same waters that they do. We eat the same fish they do. We are competing for resources,” McFee said. “We do have a concern if those animals are dying, it could be a health concern for us as well.”

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