VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) - More dead dolphins are washing ashore along the East Coast. The plethora of standings is a mystery plaguing biologists.
103 bottlenose dolphins have been found on Virginia beaches this year, and 62 of those strandings were discovered between July 1 and August 5 along the Chesapeake Bay. The latest report came Friday morning -- two live dolphins washed up on Eastern Shore beaches.
Because of the deaths, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an Unusual Mortality Event in the Mid-Atlantic. NOAA says the number of deaths are more than seven times the historical average.
Collecting the carcasses is a routine mission for Daniel Gilmore, a new volunteer with the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center's Stranding Response Team.
"I come here about three days a week, and most of the days I come, I've been going out – it’s been a lot," Gilmore said.
Its worrisome not only to a novice like Gilmore, but also to veteran scientists from the Smithsonian Museum who traveled to Virginia Beach this week to look into the deaths.
Charlie Potter is in Virginia Beach to help collect tissue samples and look for any common links among the dead.
"This event is frightfully similar to the event that happened in 1987," Potter told WAVY.com
More than 750 dolphins washed up along the East Coast in 1987. It was eventually determined to be a virus called morbillivirus -- similar to measles in humans -- that killed them. The sickness is highly contagious among dolphins.
One dolphin that died in the last couple months tested positive for morbillivirus. However, it is still uncertain if that is the culprit of all the other deaths or if the cause of the deaths could affect humans.
"We will be conscious of and looking for toxins or pathogens that might be of concern [for humans], whether it's on the beach, swimming, or in our seafood," said Teri Rowels, NOAA Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator.
"Our existence depends on the marine environment, quite frankly. That’s the shortened story of it ... and since the dolphins are mammals the same way we are, we really have to pay attention," Potter said.
And that means everyone. Scientists rely on the public to report the dolphin strandings. They want to know if you see a dead animal on the beach or if you see a living dolphin acting strangely, like circling in the same area or pacing within a short span of the beach.
If the stranding team can get to one of those sick animals as it beaches itself, they can get better samples, and maybe a better idea of what is killing the animals.
All of the data the Virginia Beach stranding team collects is going to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is compiling it with information from teams in New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.
Now that the dolphin deaths constitute an "unusual mortality event" label, the federal government will give the teams more money and resources to investigate. However, NOAA says the process is likely to be very expensive and the federal money will only cover a portion of their costs.
To view a map pinpointing the Hampton Roads locations where dolphins have been found between July and August 5, click here.
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