“Truly historic” rate of dolphin deaths declining in Virginia - Richmond Times-Dispatch: Virginia News

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“Truly historic” rate of dolphin deaths declining in Virginia

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Posted: Tuesday, November 12, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 11:55 pm, Tue Nov 12, 2013.

Dolphins are still dying off the Atlantic coast, but not as often.

It’s possible the disease causing the die-off has worked its way through the most susceptible animals, experts say.

But it’s also possible the death rate could pick up again.

“We hope the event is winding down, especially in Virginia,” said Mark Swingle, director of research and conservation for the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach.

The nonprofit aquarium is home to Virginia’s sole program for responding to stranded dolphins, whales and sea turtles.

A virus similar to measles in humans appears to be killing the bottlenose dolphins, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

The virus does not pose a threat to people, experts say.

Originally stretching from New York to Virginia, the outbreak has spread to South Carolina and could reach Florida as some infected animals make their normal fall migrations to the south, scientists say.

Nearly 750 dolphins died from July through October in that New York-to-South Carolina region, officials say. The normal number of deaths for that region for an entire year is 75.

Virginia has been hit hardest, possibly because there is a large dolphin population off our coast in summer. In this state, 331 dolphins died from July through October. The average for the period is 23.

New Jersey was number two in deaths, with 132.

The die-off “has truly been historic for Virginia,” Swingle said.

The number of dead and dying dolphins washing up on shore is going down. In Virginia, for example, 48 died in July, 172 in August, 80 in September and 31 in October.

Mendy Garron, the marine mammal stranding coordinator for NOAA’s Maine-to-Virginia region, said the decline in deaths could have a number of causes.

“Animals may be starting to migrate out of the area, or the virus has run through most of the population,” Garron said.

There was a lull in deaths during a similar dolphin die-off in 1987-88, but the deaths “picked back up again as animals migrated south,” Garron said.

“We hope (the decline in deaths) means that the mortalities are ending, but we are preparing for the strandings to increase again, especially in Southern states.”

There is no way to protect the exposed dolphins, so the disease will have to work its course, experts say. Dolphins that survive the outbreak should develop an immunity to the virus.

rspringston@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6453

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