BILOXI, Mississippi – The U.S. government is keeping a tight lid on its probe into scores of unexplained dolphin deaths along the Gulf Coast, possibly connected to last year’s BP oil spill, causing tension with some independent marine scientists.
A bottlenose dolphin breaks the surface off Florida in this 2009 photo. 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.
The 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.
“Because 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.
A 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.
Moreover, 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 tests.
Some 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 community.
“It throws 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.”
Some 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.
“It 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.
“We 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.”
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