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Health and Environmental Risk Assessment for Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins

July 24, 2015

Health and Environmental Risk Assessment for Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins

Written by Stephen McCulloch: Georgia Aquarium HERA program manager, field supervisor and co-investigator

Last week, Georgia Aquarium researchers, other scientific partners and I completed an ongoing study to better understand the health of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins and the marine ecosystems we both share. Over the last two weeks, we have been operating in Florida’s most bio-diverse natural estuary, the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), where we collected data and assessed dolphins for the HERA program, which stands for dolphin Health and Environmental Risk Assessment

Gregory Bossart, V.M.D., Ph.D., chief veterinary officer and senior vice president at Georgia Aquarium and co-principal investigator and federal permit holder for the program, first initiated the HERA journey in 2003. Since that time, I have led 10 HERA investigations in the IRL and four in the coastal waters of South Carolina. This provides us with a unique comparative study to evaluate dolphin health in both regions.

The overarching goal of this comprehensive, multi-disciplinary program is to assess potential environmental and anthropogenic, or human induced, stressors that may affect the health and long-term viability of bottlenose dolphin populations.

This year’s research efforts started in November 2014 with meetings to begin budgeting and planning the complex logistics associated with managing such an important effort.

With the final approval in December 2014, monthly meetings were held at Georgia Aquarium, which is the primary sponsor of this program, in order to delegate the important tasks of assembling all of the equipment and staff necessary to carry out the HERA operation.

Then, on June 30th, just one week before HERA and after all systems and resources were made ready, we commenced preliminary on-water surveys to scout the area of operations in the northern IRL and Mosquito Lagoon. During those four survey days, we sighted more than 240 dolphins and identified several areas of shallow water that would allow our teams to operate safely.

Working in shallow water is just one of the many requirements of the federal permit issued to Dr. Bossart from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and with human safety always my primary concern, we seldom work in water that is more than five-feet deep. This allows HERA participants to stand up and safely manage the net and the dolphins during their brief examinations.

In addition to the NMFS permit, I had to obtain three other “special use” permits from the Florida Fish and Conservation Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canaveral National Seashore that borders the IRL in order to complete our HERA research. These “special use” permits are to ensure that during the course of HERA operations, we do not accidently injure any sea turtles or manatees inhabiting these protected IRL areas.

Each day from July 7 -16, a team of 50 to 70 specialists departed from the Kennedy Point Marina in Titusville, FL in a fleet of 11 specialized boats. This is an-all day effort that starts at sunrise and ends well after the sunsets. The work is hard and the hot Florida sun can be brutal. Getting plenty of rest and rehydration are essential to keeping every one safe and alert.

Staff from Georgia Aquarium and the Georgia Aquarium Conservation Field Station were joined by participants from the NOAA/National Ocean Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, University of Florida, University of Miami School of Medicine, Florida Institute of Technology, Texas Tech, SeaWorld Orlando, Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University, Discovery Cove, Busch Gardens, Ocean Embassy, Dolphins Plus, Dolphin Research Center, Marine Mammal Responders, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the National Estuary Program, the South Carolina Aquarium, Dolphin Adventure Mexico and the Texas Sealife Center of Corpus Christie, TX.

The IRL is an ecologically diverse estuary with more than 2,200 different species of animals and 2,100 species of plants that covers approximately 40 percent of Florida’s Atlantic coast. This area has experienced significant changes in water quality due to land-use and pollution, and the northern region has experienced three unusual mortality events (UMEs), or unexpected strandings, in which a significant amount of dolphins have died. The most recent UMEs happened in 2013, making this year’s HERA research efforts that much more important.

My role as project manager and field coordinator means I oversee HERA’s complex logistics, planning and executing on/off water activities. My number one priority is ensuring safety for both the animals and people, and I take this immense responsibility very seriously. As a co-investigator, I also contribute to the efforts of publishing the data with Dr. Bossart and a team of more than 40 collaborators.

The morning of each trip, HERA boat crews gather and prepare by loading laboratory supplies, scientific equipment, safety gear and of course, plenty of sunscreen and water on to the boats. Once on the water, we survey for small groups of dolphins in the shallow waters of the IRL to identify, examine and safely release them. To help in this year’s effort, and to help increase safety, a drone with a camera was used to give us an added and unprecedented aerial perspective.

Identifying and capturing images of the estimated 1,000 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins that inhabit the IRL is important because it allows us to make sure their data is tracked throughout the years. A master database is kept that helps us identify the dorsal fin and health parameters of each dolphin we assess.

When we are ready to conduct the health examination, veterinarians check the dolphin’s gender, conduct a variety of tests and gather biological samples for laboratory analysis. Once the exam is complete, we tag and safely release the dolphins back into the lagoon and then, conduct a post-release monitoring program. This is to ensure that all of the dolphins we detain and examine remain safe in their native waters.

This year we performed health assessments on 34 dolphins. The data collected will be analyzed by HERA scientific collaborators and will help Dr. Bossart and his partners understand the health of the dolphins and the threats facing the lagoon ecosystem.

We still have many questions about these dolphins, which as Dr. Bossart says are the proverbial ‘canaries in the coal mine.’ Understanding their health and determining what impacts them is important because they can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health.

Our mission is simple: to protect wild dolphins and ensure that these magnificent marine mammals always have a place in our coastal waters.

As this year’s HERA program ends and everyone returns home safe, we are already planning for the next Georgia Aquarium-HERA operations in 2016 and beyond.

You can view more images from this year’s HERA operation here.

To learn more about our dolphin research at Georgia Aquarium, click here.

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