St. Petersburg, Florida -- Hundreds of dolphins are dying off the northern Atlantic coast and Erin Fougeres is paying close attention to the developing epidemic.
"What we think is, it's a naïve population of animals that are younger than 26 that have not been exposed to the morbillivirus virus, are now infected and cannot fight the infection," said Fougeres, who is NOAA's Marine Mammal Stranding Program administrator in St. Petersburg.
In 1987 and 1988, the same morbillivirus killed about 750 bottlenose dolphins and it spread the same direction.
This year's started in Virginia in June, when a few dolphins were found sick and stranded on the shoreline. Then by the end of August, there have been 364 dying dolphins found from New York's shoreline down through the banks of North Carolina.
"If it follows the 1987, 1988 die-off, then it will continue to move down the coast into Florida," said Fougeres. "It's sad and there's also nothing we can really do about it. It is a virus, we don't have a vaccine, you cannot go out and vaccinate a wild population. You just have to let it run its course. So it sad because we are going to see the mortalities continue for now. They will build up their own anti-bodies to it, then the animals that survive will be naturally vaccinated."
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Fougeres also said there's no evidence that the dolphin stock in that southern region might soon become infected and swim into the eastern Florida shoreline, travel through the Florida Keys and into the Gulf. Fougeres says dolphins that travel along the east coast of Florida typically stay on that coast and don't continue through the Keys and into the Gulf coast.
However, stranding crews are prepared at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium if dolphins do by chance become infected and are found in the Gulf, but again, according to NOAA that's not likely.