Anoxic Oceans, Biotoxins and Harmful Algae — Missing Links in Mass Dolphin Deaths on US East Coast?

Dolphin Strandings

(East Coast Dolphin Strandings by State and Year. Image source: NOAA)

According to reports from NOAA, as of early October more than 550 dolphins had died and washed up along the US East Coast. The deaths, which NOAA has causally linked to morbillivirus infection, are occurring at a more rapid pace than the massive 1987 die-off which eventually resulted in more than 1100 East Coast dolphin deaths over the course of a 1 year period. By the time the first three months had passed in the 1987 die-off about 350 dolphins had perished. If the current event lasts as long as the 1987 die-off we could possibly see nearly 2000 deaths, setting up the current event as the worst in modern memory.

Morbillivirus — Cause, or Symptom of a More Ominous Problem?

In recent calls to NOAA and the various state institutes of marine science, I continue to receive confirmation that morbillivirus is listed as the primary cause of dolphin deaths. Most of the stranded dolphins have tested positive for morbillivirus and the disease has been implicated in dolphin deaths before. (For reference, morbillivirus is the same disease that causes measles in humans and is similarly virulent in dolphins. )

That said, numerous scientific sources, including The Scientific American and researchers at the NRDC, have questioned whether morbillivirus is the primary cause or just a symptom of a larger problem with ocean health. They point to research showing stranded dolphins with high levels of biotoxins in fatty tissue and individuals that are generally plagued by parasites and other infections. Many of these dolphins display compromised or weakened immune systems as a result of elevated toxicity levels. Meanwhile, a large enough segment of these animals are among the adult population to rule out age as a major secondary cause of mortality.

Algae Blooms as Source of Biotoxins

East Coast Algae Bloom

(Satellite Shot of Green and Brown Tinted Water Indicative of Algae Blooms off the Virginia Coast on Oct 18. Image Source: Lance-Modis)

Sitting on the top of the food chain as one of the oceans’ high-order predators, dolphins consume a large volume of fish. These fish, in turn, are fed by lower food chain sources. As food passes up the chain, any toxin within the food will reach higher levels of concentration, making top order predators, like dolphins, more vulnerable to poisoning.

The biotoxins found in recently deceased dolphins can be linked to harmful forms of algae that tend to develop in low oxygen ocean environments. Some of these toxins can cause various forms of food poisoning in mammals (including humans). Others, like hydrogen sulfide, can build up in adipose tissue to have a number of long-term effects resulting in stresses to major organ systems, neurological and psychological health, and strains on a body’s immunity to disease and infection.

Most of the dead dolphins discovered, thus far, are either males or nursing infants. Both are more vulnerable than females to toxicity due to the fact that males have no means of rapidly shedding biological toxins and infants receive higher doses of harmful substances from toxins concentrating in mother’s milk.

Fasting Dolphins Likely to be More Affected

As toxins build up in the dolphins’ fatty tissues, they come under increased risk of immuno compromise and infection during times when they tap the energy from these stores. Elevated toxicity can happen any time a dolphin may decide to fast rather than forage. As the fats are tapped by the body, the toxins are re-released into the dolphin’s blood stream where they can build up to harmful levels.

Morbillivirus Shouldn’t be So Lethal

Supporting the biotoxin/immuno compromise theory is the fact that morbillivirus shouldn’t carry such a high lethality rate. The virus normally only results in death among the most vulnerable individuals — primarily the very young, the very old, or the already weak or sick. The fact that morbillivirus, in this case, is carrying such a high lethality rate is a direct sign that the virus isn’t the only cause and that a higher portion of the dolphin population is far less healthy than is usual. High biotoxin levels in dead dolphins also point toward a combination of causes.

Dying Oceans and Dying Dolphins

A recent report on the health of the world’s oceans resulted in ominous findings that may also provide further hints as to why so many East Coast dolphins are dying this year. The IPSO 2013 State of the Oceans report found that oceans were experiencing anoxia (loss of oxygen) not just along coastal regions where human nutrient run-off was resulting in massive algae blooms and dead zones, but also in the deep ocean. There, in even the far off-shore waters, ocean oxygen levels were falling. Other high order predators, requiring high oxygen levels to sustain their high metabolisms — like the deep sea marlin — were found to have changed their migratory patterns to avoid deep ocean, oxygen-poor, dead zones forming and expanding throughout the world’s oceans.

The expanding anoxia is both an ocean killer and a direct signal of the changes resulting from human caused climate disruption. Warmer ocean waters hold less oxygen in solution and so they dump more into the atmosphere. In addition, increased fresh water run-off from melting glaciers and more intense rainfall events (due to increases in the world’s hydrological cycle directly caused by warming), result in less mixing of surface waters and deeper waters. Increased run-off also results in more algae blooms which further starve the oceans of oxygen.

These all contribute to increasingly anoxic waters. And once the ocean environment flips to anoxic states, it becomes a host to numerous toxin-producing bacteria. These toxins, in turn, end up in the food chain and directly impact the dolphins and a whole host of other animals.

In other words, a more anoxic ocean is an ocean that produces more harmful bacteria. An ocean full of harmful bacteria is one that increases the risk of dolphin mortality. And when we see spikes in dolphin deaths, as we have on the US east coast this year and on the US gulf coast for every year since 2010, we had better sit up and pay attention. As it’s a clear signal that the oceans, as a whole, are in trouble.

Implications for Both Ocean and Land Dwellers

Because the ocean and the atmosphere are interconnected and because humans greatly rely on the oceans for both foods and livelihoods, it is pure folly to ignore the ongoing plight of the world’s oceans. Toxic fish, mass deaths of ocean animals, and a thinning of the ocean biosphere could result in the loss of enough food to feed upwards of a billion people. Increasing instances of toxic algae blooms will also likely result in higher sickness and mortality rates for those who frequently come into contact with the seas. In the most extreme cases, blooms of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria could poison the air near toxic algae blooms, resulting in severe hazards for those who live on land.

Transitioning to a stratified, anoxic and/or Canfield ocean state is an outcome of climate change that is all too often ignored. A risk that should be listed among the worst potential outcomes of human greenhouse gas emissions. A risk that has echoes in the great Permian Extinction event in our world’s deep past. It is a danger exists now and the growing risk of its emergence are becoming increasingly apparent.

Signal Received?

The dolphins, our ‘sentinels of ocean health’ are dying. And in their deaths are a message that we should be hearing loud and clear. Will we listen?

Links and Hat Tips:

The State of the Oceans, 2013

Are Dolphins Reaching a Breaking Point?

Are Humans Behind the East Coast Dolphin Die-Off?

Climate Change, Anoxic Waters and Dead Dolphins

Hat Tip to Commenter Steve


Radio Ecoshock Interview: Record Floods, ENSO, Methane Release, and Slope Collapse


Last week, I discussed the issues of recent record floods, record ocean temperatures despite the negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation, methane release, slope collapse and ocean stratification along with other environmental and ecological issues surrounding our ongoing climate change crisis with Alex Smith at Radio Ecoshock. The program became available online late Tuesday and will be airing on various radio stations around the US this week. You can click on the image above to listen to my 30 minute interview or you can listen to the entire 60 minute program which also includes an interview with Oxford marine biologist Dr. Alex Rogers here.

The professionally produced program will air on 71 radio stations over the coming week and will be continuously available online at Radio Ecoshock. This is, perhaps, one of the best interviews I’ve conducted and Alex Smith is a fantastic host providing fantastically insightful questions and analysis. So, if you have the time, I wholeheartedly suggest you listen to the entire program.

Those familiar with my blog will probably be well acquainted with the topics discussed. In addition, Dr. Rogers provides an excellent analysis of his recently published State of the Oceans 2013 report which is available here. In it Dr. Rogers explores ongoing threats to the world ocean system resulting from human activity and carbon emissions to include ocean acidification, increasing instances of ocean anoxia (both in the deep ocean and near coastlines), as well as the ongoing impacts caused by over-fishing. Rogers also hints at the growing problem of ocean stratification which combines with a warming ocean system to greatly increase anoxia.

State of the Oceans

(Link to 2013 State of the Oceans report here)

Perhaps most alarming is his explanation that fish species such as marlin are already altering their migration patterns due to changes in ocean water oxygen content — an ominous sign that we are already moving to a more stratified ocean state.

For reference, the following blogs will be helpful to those listening:

August 2013: Hottest Ocean Temperatures on Record Defy ENSO, Spur Continental Deluges

Growth Shock and our Climate Change Choices: Mitigation, Adaptation or Harm

A Requiem for Flooded Cities: Russian Flood Disaster Worsens, Amur River to Hit 30 Feet

I Have A Confession to Make: We Are In Trouble

The Methane Monster Grows New Teeth: Sea Level Rise Found to Cause Methane Release, Tsunamis, Slope Collapse

A Song of Flood and Fire

A Deadly Climb From Glaciation to Hothouse, Why the Permian Extinction is Pertinent to Human Warming

Climate Monsters We Want to Keep in the Closet: Heinrich Events, Superstorms, and Warming the Deep Ocean

In Government Shutdown/Debt Crisis, ‘Default Denier’ Republicans Pushed US/World Economy To the Brink, Again

Republican disapproval jumps 11 percent in recent budget/debt default crisis.

Republican disapproval jumps 11 percent in recent budget/debt default crisis.

(Image source: The Washington Post)

“Cut it or Shut it!” — Republican chant during the 2011 and 2012 budget and fiscal crises…


Though it appears Republicans may at last cave in their current game of economic brinksmanship, let’s be perfectly clear who or what’s to blame. It was not typical bickering in Congress. It was not the fact that Republicans and Democrats disagreed on a whole host of issues. And it’s not because, as Alan Greenspan says, our political system is a failure. It’s simply because Republicans decided to link an ideological issue surrounding a Republican drive to kill Obamacare to the broader issue of keeping the government, and everything else for that matter, running.

What we witnessed was not the failure of a political system, but the drastic moral and intellectual failure of the Republican Party. A party whose entirely irresponsible and selfish actions brought us to the brink, yet again….

A Bankrupt, Extremist, Callous and Irresponsible Ideology

There seems to be no rational limit to Republican idolatry of an ideology, in the service of wealthy special interests, that has proven morally and rationally bankrupt time and time again. And in the most recent government shut down and debt default crisis, the direct threat is now that both the US and world economies would steadily go bankrupt as Republicans attempted to foist their extreme political agenda on the rest of us one more time.

Analysts noted that the recent government shut-down (tied directly to Republican demands for concessions over Obamacare) cost Americans more than 100 million dollars per day and that the number would likely balloon further if the shut-down continued. Similar analysis also showed that the related debt default (also tied to concessions), beginning at midnight tonight, could result in total losses to the world economy in the range of 2.5 trillion dollars over the course of just one year (about 4.2 percent world GDP). Despite these ominous warnings, Republicans appeared, until the very last minute, to be in denial of the ongoing and growing risk resulting from their imposed shutdown and dangerous games of chicken with national debt default.

Earlier today, both ratings agencies and Wall Street chimed in. Fitch threatened yet one more downgrade in the US credit rating, while Wall Street hinted that the game was up asking Republicans to step down in their ongoing and irrational tirade, primarily to serve a few Wall Street special interests.

The drama on Wall Street and the reports of big dollar numbers masked the more tangible and personal losses that were less apparent in mainstream reporting. Child victims of cancer applying for NIH grants to help gain access to treatments their parents can’t afford had to wait in hopes that the Republican blackmail machine fell off the rails. Hundreds of local parks, military bases, schools, libraries and facilities receiving government grant and funding assistance had hours of operation curtailed, events canceled, or had to make yet one more set of hard choices to keep operating. Hundreds of thousands of government employees were released on furlough due to Republican intransigence and brinksmanship. Scientists, teachers, researchers, doctors, and those supporting police officers, security guards, and firemen were all included in the furlough. Essential research was stalled, education and health care was curtailed, and law enforcement and public safety was jeopardized.

Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars were cut off from middle and working class Americans each and every day. Americans whose skills focus on finding a cure for cancer, inventing helpful new technologies, keeping a weather eye to an ongoing climate change crisis, keeping Wall Street from imploding, providing revenues for ongoing government functions, or just keeping the essential functions of the most powerful civilization in the world humming. These everyday people are the nefarious ‘villains’ Republicans invoke each time they demonize government in rhetoric or lobby for the dismantling of all things public in their endless quest to serve a corporate profit motive. A quest that has increasingly included an incessant barrage of budget blackmail crises.

Brinksmanship and Blackmail In the Service of Greed

It is a sad fact that the ideology Republicans now serve endlessly pushes for short term gains and concessions for wealthy individuals linked to sprawling, bloated, exploitative, self-serving, myopic, and inefficient multinational corporations. In the case of the current shut-down, massive for-profit health care corporations who stand at risk of losing a small percent of their profits (resulting from over-pricing medicine, rationing health care only to those able to afford spiraling costs, and excluding poor and middle class individuals with major illnesses) after the implementation of Obamacare are the primary beneficiaries of the most recent Republican action. And the Republicans would risk wrecking the world economy in order to preserve the overly exploitative and harmful structures of the for-profit medical corporations and related multinationals. (In Growth Shock, such badly behaving corporations were labeled Godzilla Megazombies or GMZs. In this case, they have certainly earned the title.)

The Republican attitude, in this as in so many other cases, is ‘give us what we want, or we’ll sabotage everything else.’ This destructive and anarchic mind-set illustrates a degree of petulance not seen in modern memory. In other words, large corporations, like the medical industry, are believed to be entitled to exploit their fellow human beings, even to the extent that they shorten their life-spans, for the sake of their corporate and individual profits. If concessions to these self-serving entities are not ensured, the Republicans attack the very system that supports modern civilization by threatening to shut it down completely.

The Latest Link in a Chain of Crises

Sadly, the current crisis is just the latest in a long string of such events spear-headed by Republican and Tea Party backers. Republican brinksmanship has gone in the service of removing women’s rights, de-funding efforts to research human-caused climate change, instilling new systems of voter suppression in the south, neutering legislation supporting SEC efforts to reduce risk on Wall Street, de-funding EPA efforts to keep water and air clean and to regulate US carbon emissions, and a number of other beneficial activities in which the US Government is involved.

In total, these Republican disruptions are estimated to have cost the US population on the order of 900,000 jobs and 51 billion dollars in personal income annually. But the past damage caused by Republicans linking political issues to budget passage pale in comparison to the billions and trillions that stand to be lost should the US government default on its debt or continue to be shut down for an extended period.

One would expect this kind of behavior, and its related linking of funding the federal government through the extraction of political concessions, from a Batman-style super-villain, not from an American political party. So, with Republicans and the American people in general, the level of confusion and cognitive dissonance continues to reach unprecedented highs.

Will the American People Let Republicans Get Away With It?

Political polls covering the current Republican-inflicted shutdown and debt crisis show that Republicans bear most of the blame for the most recent debacle. However, big money ideological interests like the Koch Brothers are likely to spend large sums to muddy the water, shift blame and obscure Republicans role in the most recent shutdown and debt default. So it is uncertain whether the American people will be hoodwinked, as they were during the emergence of the ‘revolution for the rich’ Tea Party insurgency, or if they will hold Republicans accountable for their infliction of harm on the broader American public in order to extract concessions for their special interest backers.

A recent CBS News interview with political analyst John Sides provides reasons to be cautious.

But with Republican congressional disapproval ratings rocketing 11 points to 74%, it appears possible that the Republicans have finally bitten off more than they can chew and the American public has, at last, figured out the implications of their dangerous games. The Atlantic recently published an article listing the 32 Congressmen most responsible for the current government shut down. Small surprise, every one is a member of the Republican Party or a rabid member of the Tea Party Caucus.


Republicans Losing a No-Win Game

Both Sides Should Worry About Political Consequences

The 32 Congressmen Most Responsible for The Shut-Down

Republican Tea Party to Force Government Shutdown

Republican Bickering Has Cost Nearly 1 Million Jobs

White House Fights Default Deniers

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