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Gowanus Toxins Probably Didn't Kill Dolphin, Officials Say

By Leslie Albrecht | January 28, 2013 4:47pm

GOWANUS — The dolphin whose lonely death in the filthy Gowanus Canal broke hearts nationwide probably didn't die from pollution found in the Superfund site, a marine biologist who conducted a necropsy on the animal said.

Preliminary results of a five-hour necropsy completed Sunday at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation suggest that age and chronic ailments like kidney stones and parasites doomed the animal, rather than contact with toxins in the canal, said Kimberly Durham, the rescue program director at Riverhead.

“There's a lot of people saying that they believe it was the contaminants [that killed the dolphin]," Durham said. "The necropsy doesn't support that. It supports a very compromised individual that happened to find itself at that location."

The examination of the dolphin's body revealed that the animal was older — about 25 or 30 years — and hadn't eaten recently. The dolphin's health was compromised by conditions such as kidney stones, which are very unusual in common dolphins, and ulcerations and parasites in its stomach.

There was no evidence that the dolphin had ingested toxins from the canal, which probably would have left burn marks or lesions inside the animal's mouth or on the sensitive tissue around its blow hole, Durham said. There was no evidence of those injuries, Durham said. There were also no indications that the dolphin drowned or swallowed large quantities or water, she said.

The dolphin's appearance in the heavily polluted waterway on Friday horrified onlookers, who could only watch helplessly as the animal seemed to struggle and repeatedly surface for air with black gunk coating its snout. After several hours wandering the canal alone — unusual for the very social, friendly creatures — the dolphin died early Friday evening.

The 340-pound, 7-foot dolphin was "skinny" and an examination of its stomach showed that it hadn't eaten recently, meaning that the dolphin may have lost the ability to feed itelf, Durham said. Generally a well-fed dolphin will have squid flesh in its stomach, but this dolphin did not, Durham said. It was also missing the layer of blubber that dolphins typical develop during the winter.

Given the animal's ill health, the dolphin was probably "destined to beach itself," Durham said. "He was heavily compromised and he wasn't doing well," Durham said. "At that point it might have just been going where the tide was taking it."

Such deaths are commonplace in nature, but usually happen on the open ocean far from human eyes, Durham said. Friday's public passing of a common dolphin — a beloved species known for their playful nature and mouths that seem permanently curved into a smile — shocked many.

"When it's happening right then, and you can watch it on TV, that's when people get upset," Durham said. "It's not something people see every day. It's very hard to watch something like that."

Durham said she welcomed questions from the public about the dolphin's death and planned to post the results of the necropsy online.

The animal's passing sparked outrage from the public, many of whom slammed the Riverhead Foundation and local law enforcement for not rescuing the animal from the canal, one of the country's most polluted waterways.

"[It is] a shame that the individuals who are the guardians of our wild life are afraid to put on protective gear in order to do their jobs," wrote one commenter on the Riverhead Foundation's Facebook page. "Cowards should not endeavor to belong among the humans that care and love animals."

Durham said first responders at the scene warned Riverhead officials against venturing into the dangerous water. "We were limited in our ability to get access [to the dolphin]," Durham said. "It was about being told, 'If you go in that water, we're not coming in after you. We were told, we don't know what's in that mud."

Even if marine biologists with Riverhead Foundation had been able to rescue the dolphin, Durham said saving the creature's life would have been "challenging." She also noted that there is only one rehabilitation tank for dolphins between Maine and Florida, and it's currently occupied by a harbor porpoise that Riverhead Foundation rescued after hikers discovered it stranded in a marsh.

The Gowanus Canal, long a dumping ground for nearby chemical plants and industrial businesses, was declared a Superfund site in 2010. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently released a proposal for cleaning up the canal.

The multi-year plan would cost roughly $500 million. While it would remove toxins from the canal, the cleanup wouldn't make the waterway clean enough for fishing or swimming, officials have said.