Much debris has been cleared out, but three months after Harvey’s landfall, the ecological damage is still being assessed. Not long after the storm clouds cleared, oyster and shrimp farmers lamented the hit to their livelihoods from extensive rains and runoff.
But researchers at the University of Houston at Clear Lake have been looking at the storm’s effect on other marine life, too – and they’ve discovered that bottlenose dolphins, have developed some puzzling ailments after the storm. Kristi Fazioli, a research associate with the Environmental Institute of Houston at the University of Houston Clear Lake, helps study this population.
Fazioli and her team have been researching dolphins in the upper portion of the Galveston Bay for years and they’ve observed the effects caused when freshwater meets the bay. She says dolphins commonly develop skin lesions, and after Harvey, the symptom became widespread.
“They pretty much can cover their entire body and basically they appear as white splotches, sometimes like a raised growth on their skin,” she says.
She says the team is in the process of learning more about the skin lesions, so there’s a lot they don’t know yet, like whether or not the lesions are painful. Fazioli says the lesions do not affect the dolphins directly unless they are stuck in freshwater for a long time. In these cases, it may cause electrolyte imbalances, severe fungal infections, internal organ damage and, in extreme cases, death.
After Harvey, Fazioli says many dolphins left the bay but the team noticed malnourishment among the dolphins that stayed near the storm. That’s why her team is worried about other non-visible threats the dolphins may be experiencing, like toxic runoff.
“One of the main things right now that is important to us is to monitor the population,” she says. “This knowledge is really important to making good management decisions in the future.”
Looking ahead, Fazioli plans to study calf survivability and reproductive success, test contaminants, and closely observe those with skin lesions in order to better understand how the team can help these animals.
Written by Dani Matias.