Wildlife biologists contracted by the National
Marine Fisheries Service to document spikes in dolphin mortality and to
collect specimens and tissue samples for the agency were quietly
ordered late last month to keep their findings confidential.
gag order was contained in an agency letter informing outside
scientists that its review of the dolphin die-off, classified as an
"unusual mortality event (UME)," had been folded into a federal criminal
investigation launched last summer into the oil spill.
of the seriousness of the legal case, no data or findings may be
released, presented or discussed outside the UME investigative team
without prior approval," the letter, obtained by Reuters, stated.
number of scientists said they have been personally rebuked by federal
officials for "speaking out of turn" to the media about efforts to
determine the cause of some 200 dolphin deaths this year, and about 90
others last year, in the Gulf.
they said collected samples and specimens are being turned over to the
government for analysis under a protocol that will leave independent
scientists in the dark about the efficacy and outcome of any laboratory
researchers designated as official "partners" in the agency's Marine
Mammal Stranding Network complained such constraints undermine the
transparency of a process normally open to review by the scientific
accountability right out the window," one biologist involved in tracking
dolphin deaths for more than 20 years told Reuters on condition of
anonymity. "We are confused and ... we are angry because they claim they
want teamwork, but at the same time they are leaving the marine experts
out of the loop completely."
question why the Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has taken so long to
get samples into laboratories.
is surprising that it has been almost a full year since the spill, and
they still haven't selected labs for this kind of work," said Ruth
Carmichael, who studies marine mammals at the independent Dauphin Island
Sea Lab in Alabama.
"I can only hope that this process is a good thing. I just don't know. This is an unfortunate situation."
NOAA officials expressed sympathy but insisted the control and confidentiality measures were necessary.
are treating the evidence, which are the dolphin samples, like a murder
case," said Dr. Erin Fougeres, a marine biologist with the Fisheries
Service. "The chain of custody is being closely watched. Every dolphin
sample is considered evidence in the BP case now."
METHODICAL APPROACHBlair Mase, a marine mammal scientist for
NOAA, said lab results would go directly back to the Fisheries Service
in about two to three months.
have to be very methodical," Mase said. "The criminal investigation does
play a role in the delay of findings, but it has to be done this way."
of this week, scientists have counted nearly 200 bottlenose dolphin
carcasses found since mid-January along the shores of Louisiana,
Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, about half of them newly born or
about 14 times the numbers averaged during that time of year between
2002 and 2007, coincides with the first dolphin calving season in the
northern Gulf since BP's Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded last
The blast killed 11 workers
and ruptured a wellhead on the sea floor, dumping an estimated 5 million
barrels (206 million gallons) of oil into the Gulf over more than three
Nearly 90 dead dolphins,
most of them adults, washed up along the Gulf Coast last year in the
weeks and months following the blowout.
latest spike in deaths, and high concentration of premature infants
among them, has led some experts to speculate that oil ingested or
inhaled by dolphins during the spill has taken a belated toll on the
animals, possibly leading to a wave of dolphin miscarriages.
most of the specimens collected bear no obvious signs of oil
contamination, making lab analysis crucial to understanding what caused
Mase said the carcasses
also are considered potential evidence in the natural resources damage
assessment being conducted in conjunction with civil litigation pursued
against BP by the government simultaneously with the criminal probe.