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Dolphin deaths in Panhandle bay increase to more than 20

The Ledger

The Associated Press

12th March 2004

State and federal scientists stepped up efforts Friday to determine what has been killing bottlenose dolphins, fish and horseshoe crabs in and near St. Josephs Bay as the death toll climbed to at least 22 over a three-day period.

Water samples will be tested for a possible toxin, such as red tide, and post-mortem examinations were being conducted, but it could be a couple weeks before biologists have an answer, said Blair Mase, Southeast stranding coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The carcasses, some found up to a mile from shore in the bay and in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the bay, were brought to a picnic area at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park where the post-mortems were being done, said park manager Anne Harvey.

The park is on Cape San Blas in the Florida Panhandle near Port St. Joe, about 80 miles southwest of Tallahassee.

Harvey said the fish kill included 14 large redfish and some horseshoe crabs. That has increased suspicion that red tide or some other toxin may be responsible, although nothing yet has been excluded, Mase said.

"Typically, if this is a red tide event, this may continue for weeks or months," she said.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission helicopter found three of the carcasses Thursday night and may conduct additional surveillance flights, Harvey said.

Strandings of bottlenose dolphins are common, but they rarely strand en mass, said Tom Pitchford, a biologist with the Commission's Marine Mammal Pathology Laboratory in St. Petersburg.

The scattering of carcasses in open water as well as along the shore, however, indicates the animals did not strand themselves, Harvey said. Also, all were dead by the time they were found. Dolphins that strand themselves sometimes are found alive and can be saved.

That's what happened in December 1997 when 62 rough-tooth dolphins, a rare deep-water species, stranded themselves here. Prison inmates, local residents and other volunteers pushed about half of the dolphins back into the gulf and they swam away. The rest died at the scene or were taken to marine parks where most also eventually died.