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Government & Policy

March 30, 2009
Volume 87, Number 13
p. 26

Mistaken Identity

Dolphin Death Wrongly Linked To Munitions

Rochelle F. H. Bohaty

In 1987, hundreds of dolphins with lesions resembling burns or blisters washed ashore along the East Coast of the U.S. Initially, many animal rights organizations and some marine-mammal specialists suspected that chemical munitions the U.S. Army had dumped in the ocean during the past century may have been the culprit.

Lesions: In 1987, hundreds of dolphins infected with morbillivirus washed ashore along the eastern U.S. coast. Marine Mammal Stranding Center
Lesions In 1987, hundreds of dolphins infected with morbillivirus washed ashore along the eastern U.S. coast.

Although the cause of dolphins' lesions was subsequently determined to be morbillivirus, a virus similar to measles in humans, chemical exposure was a reasonable initial conclusion. After all, the Army acknowledges disposing of tons of chemical munitions all along the eastern seaboard.

These chemical munitions dumps are a threat to people, marine life, and the environment, says Robert C. Schoelkopf, director and founder of the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, a New Jersey-based organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of stranded or otherwise stressed marine mammals and sea turtles. When people accidently retrieve chemical agent canisters from the ocean floor through dredging or fishing operations, they can describe or hand over material to authorities, he explains. That's not an option for marine animals that come in contact with chemical munitions.

Determining whether a marine animal has been exposed is difficult because scientists are looking for typical causes of death such as blunt trauma from being hit by a boat or natural causes such as old age. "We are not testing for chemical contaminants," Schoelkopf says, adding that "the cost to do chemical analyses on these animals, especially for specific chemical warfare agents, is very expensive."

But in 1987, when hundreds of lesion-riddled dolphins washed ashore in New Jersey, consideration turned to the more unusual scenario of chemical exposure, Schoelkopf tells C&EN. This case led him to contact the Army about the possibility that these animals could have come into contact with chemical weapons agents such as mustard.

Schoelkopf says the Army was helpful in that it shared information about its ocean dumping practices with him and others concerned with the dolphin die-off. All of the parties worked together to determine the cause of death of these dolphins, he says.

In the end, pathology workups and other analyses showed that the dolphins died of natural causes and not from exposure to chemical agents dumped in the ocean.

Morbillivirus has been observed in a number of other marine mammals including whales and seals, Schoelkopf notes. It leads to lesions that look similar to burns or blisters that could be caused by chemical agents.

"The reports that chemical weapons agents played a role in the dolphin die-off in 1987 are wrong," Schoelkopf says.

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