Scientists say Galveston Bay’s dolphins are suffering from the damage done by Harvey

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Researchers looking into the environmental effects of Hurricane Harvey note at least 500 dolphins in Galveston Bay are struggling to recover after the storm.

Scientists report numerous dolphins have signs of malnutrition, skin lesions and other illnesses. The lesions are attributed to the large influx of freshwater into the bay, which can irritate the skin of dolphins and throw off the balance of their feeding areas.

“This pulse of freshwater received by the Gulf of Mexico and its coastlines exceeded the volume of water of the entire Chesapeake Bay,” according to a statement from the Galveston Bay Foundation. “Because the brunt of the rainfall took place on the Texas coast, including the Galveston Bay watershed, Galveston Bay has received an unprecedented volume of freshwater.”

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Kristi Fazioli, a research associate at the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Environmental Institute of Houston, has been studying the dolphins in Galveston Bay since 2013. She told a Houston newspaper she also noticed the lesions on dolphins after the 2015 Memorial Day and 2016 Tax Day floods, when millions of gallons of freshwater ran into the bay.

The influx of freshwater may not be the only cause of the dolphins’ illnesses. Reports also show nearly 150 million gallons of raw sewage and industrial runoff from Houston’s bayous ran into Galveston Bay during and after Harvey. Nearly 100 companies reported chemical spills during the storm, much of which ran into the bay and altered the environment.

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Researchers such as Fazioli are gathering data to determine if the lesions are caused by the bay’s lower salinity levels, the high amounts of pollutants or a combination of factors.

“[The lesions] are caused by an electrolyte imbalance, and it can affect body condition,” she said. “Some of [the dolphins] looked skinny, and that can affect their overall condition, which can affect things like reproduction and calf survival, these types of things.”

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