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Experts concerned after deaths of 6 stranded dolphins found at local beaches in 2 weeks

Experts concerned after deaths of 6 stranded dolphins found at local beaches in 2 weeks
Workers attend to one of the beached dolphins found recently in Orange County. (Courtesy of Pacific Marine Mammal Center)

A spate of beached dolphins along the Orange County coast has prompted concern from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, which said it responded to six such incidents in a two-week period this month.

Three dolphins washed up on area beaches Feb. 4, including a male found dead in Huntington Beach. The two others — also males — were found in Laguna Beach and had to be humanely euthanized after being examined by animal care teams from the center, the organization said in a statement Monday.

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Two dead female dolphins, both pregnant, were found along the shore of Corona del Mar, one on Feb. 10 and the other on Feb. 15, the center said.

The sixth stranding was Feb. 19, also in Corona del Mar. That dolphin also died, though it was unclear whether it was found dead or was euthanized.

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Necropsies were performed on the marine mammals, but the results were not immediately released.

Pacific Marine Mammal Center officials said they received two other reports of cetacean strandings during that span. In one case, a dolphin washed back out into the ocean, and in the other, the location was unsafe for rescue teams.

The “outbreak” of strandings has the center “very” concerned, according to the statement, which noted the organization had responded to only one beached dolphin at this time last year.

The center said it is working with agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and universities across the country to try to understand the increase in beached dolphins.

“There are a variety of potential reasons as to why these dolphins are stranding,” said Kristen Sakamaki, a veterinarian with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. “These include, but are not limited to, viral infections, bacterial infections and toxins. We may not always get a definitive answer, but we consider our research with these dolphins to be a very important piece to the puzzle in providing clues as to what is going on in our nearshore habitats.”

The organization said there may have been recent harmful algae blooms along the Southern California coast. Such blooms can produce domoic acid, which is poisonous to humans, marine mammals and seabirds.

The recent storms also could be a factor, officials said. Rain-related runoff from the land can send excess nutrients and harmful toxins into the ocean.

“This drastic and unexpected increase in cetaceans has had a significant impact on our center,” Chief Executive Peter Chang said in the statement. “With so many incidents concentrated in such a short period of time, this has taken up much of the attention as well as our resources away from our more ‘traditional’ animal care operations focused on seals and sea lions, which coincidentally, we’ve also seen a major increase this year as compared to this same time last year.”

“Nonetheless, we are committed to understanding the root of the problem,” Chang added. “Although absolutely heart-breaking, these stranding events will provide a tremendous amount of information that will not only contribute to important insights into the lives of dolphins, but also it will help with the overarching science on the changes that we are seeing in our ocean waters.”

Anyone who encounters a beached dolphin or another marine mammal should not try to move the animal, according to the organization. Rather, it said, sightings should be reported to the center immediately at (949) 494-3050.

Daily Pilot staff contributed to this report.

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