Dolphin Dilemma

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Everyday the death toll rises with dolphin carcasses washing ashore along the world's most beautiful beaches.

Just Thursday, one dead dolphin surprised spring breakers on Panama City Beach near the Fountainbleu Motel. Another one was found behind the Ramada Inn late Wednesday night. Biologists have already tagged both dolphins and taken samples.

Laura Engleby is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration out of Miami, Florida and is in Panama City Beach helping conduct tests.

"NOAA has determined this to be an unusual mortality even, what that means is it kicks off a federal investigation into the causes," Laura says.

Biologists are working together taking samples and evaluating the data to determine why so many dolphins are dying. Four more investigators are flying in Friday to help out with the sample collecting since more dolphins continue to wash ashore everyday.

The dolphins found Wednesday were badly decomposed, while some Thursday were fresher, implicating the animals may still be dying.

"It could be disease, parasites, it could be naturally occurring biotoxins, it could be some sort of weather event. You just don't know."

Red tide is just one suspect in this investigation, no one ruling out other possibilities.

Andrew David is a research fishery biologist at NOAA on Panama City Beach. He says red tide is released in a poisonous toxin from algae.

"The way it affects marine life is when the shell is broken and the internal fluids come out, there's toxins in those."

Red tide is a natural toxin in the water and has minimal effects on people. Since dolphins breathe air, when a strong red tide is present, the animal is affected both by the fish it eats and the air it breathes.

"If we go from past experience, there was a die-off of bottle-nose dolphins in this area in 1999 and 2000. During that time over 100 dolphins died and the cause was determined to be red tide in that situation."

But for now that information will only supplement actual test results and studies done on the dolphin carcasses found this past week.

If you find an unmarked dolphin carcass on the beach, you can call Ron Hardy at Gulf World or Fish and Wildlife at 265-3677.

Read about red tide online: