1. What is your role in the CARMMHA consortium?
I am a co-principal investigator for CARMMHA, leading the Coastal Dolphin Health Assessment component of the consortium. My specific roles include identifying optimal places to capture dolphins, handling individual animals, developing the methodologies to safely, efficiently, and effectively collect sample s for the 50+ projects that will be used to assess dolphin health, and track animal movements via satellite tags after animals are released.
2. Can you describe the specific primary objectives of your research?
Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, there have been numerous projects to evaluate the health of dolphins that live in the estuaries of the northern Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to multi-agency collaborations, we are beginning to understand the long-term impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on estuarine dolphins. However, little is known about the health of dolphins that live along the coast as well as the impacts associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The goals of this component of CARMMHA are to collect baseline health data on dolphins that live in northern Gulf of Mexico coastal waters and to assess any impacts from Deepwater Horizon oiling. In addition, we will also satellite tag individual dolphins, which will provide the first data on movement patterns of dolphins that call the coastal waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico their home. These satellite tag data will be essential to understanding animals’ movements in relation to past and future anthropogenic stressors.
3. What have been your most important findings so far?
Although this component of CARMMHA does not begin until September 2018, our team has been studying dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico for over 15 years. Using photographic-identification of individual dolphins’ dorsal fins, we have made matches from field sites in Mississippi and the Florida Panhandle, suggesting that coastal dolphins may have movement patterns over 300 km. Additionally, it was estimated that 82% of coastal dolphins were exposed to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and 38% of this population were killed. Thus, it is essential to develop baseline data for this population including health assessment and satellite telemetry studies.
4. Why do you think it is important to be a part of this consortium?
This consortium is an excellent example of bringing together the expertise of a variety of researchers across different fields to better understand the effects of pollutants on a marine mammal species. This includes sampling lower taxa species such as dolphin prey, to focusing on the health of individual top-level predators via capture-release assessments. It is a rare opportunity in the science world and one I am honored to be a part of, to have a top-notch team of researchers that can all provide a unique perspective on the overarching research question of dolphin health.
5. Why is marine mammal health important for ocean conservation?
In addition to the utilitarian outlook that by studying the health of marine mammals, we can understand threats to humans, marine mammals are integral to their surrounding ecosystem. If we do not maintain these ecosystems, or take steps to preserve them, we risk losing or changing systems with unknown fine and/or broad-scale consequences.
6. What would you tell children (yours or in general) about the importance of protecting our oceans?
All of the ecosystems, including the variety of ones in our oceans, are to some degree linked. If we do not start pro-actively, as opposed to re-actively, protecting these ecosystems, at some point, we will be unable to bring them back to a functional level, which can have drastic changes for all species, including our own.