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Scientists Link Dolphin Deaths in Gulf to 2010 BP Spill

ouisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries

In a new study, a team of scientists says there’s a definite link between the massive BP oil spill in 2010 and a record number of dolphin deaths along the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The scientists said large numbers of dead bottlenose dolphins found stranded along shores since the spill suffered from lung and adrenal lesions caused by swimming in oil-contaminated seas.

The research paper backs up previous findings linking dolphin deaths to the oil spill.

The new study was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed online journal PLOS ONE. Kathleen Colegrove of the University of Illinois is the study's lead pathologist.

"These dolphins had some of the most severe lung lesions that I've ever seen in dolphins from throughout the U.S.," she said during a teleconference.

Scientists say the number of deaths has been four to five times greater than the normal amount of dolphin deaths. And in one area particularly affected by the spill - Barataria Bay on the Louisiana coast - there were 18 straight months where two to three times as many dolphins as normal were found washing up on the shoreline.

Stephanie Venn-Watson of the National Marine Mammal Foundation is the study's lead author.

"Results from our study - when paired with what has been previously been published - indicate that dolphins were negatively impacted by exposure to petroleum compounds following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill," she said. "And exposure to these compounds caused life-threatening lung and adrenal diseases and has contributed to the increased dolphin deaths in the northern Gulf of Mexico."

BP has rejected this contention, and on Wednesday said the new study failed to make a link between the deaths and oil contamination. Instead, it said, the dolphins were likely suffering from common respiratory illnesses.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.