In July, NOAA declared an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) for bottlenose dolphins; which means that bottlenose dolphins are experiencing significant die-offs and strandings. The UME calls for immediate action to research the potential causes of these deaths (now thought to be infection by cetacean morbillivirus) and to alert States to the presence of this virus. Strandings have occurred throughout the East coast, from New York and New Jersey down to North and South Carolina. In October Georgia and Florida were on the lookout for the virus, and the first Florida case was reported in November.
Scientists are concerned that the morbillivirus outbreak will be similar to the 1987-88 die-off; if that is the case well… we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
So what is morbillivirus? Morbillivirus is a measel-like virus that has different strains that infect several species: humans (causes measles), dogs, coyotes, wolves, cattle, goats, sheep, seals, otters, whales, porpoises, and dolphins of course. The most common symptoms in marine animals are skin lesions, pneumonia, brain infections, and other infections. Morbilivirus is spread through contact, but animal strains do not infect humans. Dolphins and whales have been exposed through contact and exposure through the eyes, mouth, stomach, and existing wounds.
Researchers in North Carolina took part in confirming the diagnosis by testing several dolphins in Holden Beach, West Onslow Beach, and Sunset Beach. UNCW professor Ann Pabst recalls the 1987-88 event (which killed hundreds of dolphins) saying: “If this event behaves as it did in 1987, 1988… This sort of mortality rate will continue in our region probably for the next upcoming months.” National Geographic reports that this outbreak may be due to an increase in susceptibility since the previous outbreak. 25 years has passed and the dolphins that survived the 1988 sickness (and therefore are resistant to the virus) have died or left, resulting in pods with little to no immunity to the virus. Combined with other environmental factors, like pollution and increasing water temperatures, this outbreak may be disastrous. Unfortunately, the only thing to do is wait it out.