Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans Part 8: A Threat to Oceanic Ecosystems

Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans is a 9-part series on the history and consequences of decommissioned unconventional munitions disposed at sea.

i-7dc1f4aa36e5f0e14120c87e2192747a-20189342Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans Part 8: A Threat to Oceanic Ecosystems. How do these munitions interact with aquatic flora and fauna? The truth is that we simply do not know.

What happens to an ecology into which we’ve introduced such complex and deadly compounds? Virtually no research exists on the matter, despite the prevalence of the practice. Details surface—such as the fact that fish absorb trinitrotoluene (the explosive TNT)—but the larger picture remains illusive.

The possible effect chemical munitions have upon sea life came to a head in 1987 when hundreds of dead bottlenose dolphins washed up along the coastlines of Virginia and New Jersey with burn-like wounds. The most famous picture of the incident is an ugly one, a single dolphin lying on the bottom of plastic tub. A puffy ring of flesh surrounds a yellow, dead eye, and the entire front of the snout is covered with ulcerated blistering. Skin on the forehead peels away like old paint, revealing bare whiteness of exposed bone beneath. Discarded green examination gloves lay next to the carcass. To any layman, the picture resembles mustard gas fatality.

Investigators were forced to ultimately link the mass die-off to a canine viral illness combined with bacterial infection. Many, including marine scientists and mammalian experts, remain unconvinced. Though the cause has not been definitively established, the Bottlenose dolphin population off the US East Coast declined by half in that decade alone.

MAY 15, 2015 UPDATE: Per a helpful comment (see below), it does appear that I unintentionally overstated the uncertainty regarding the cause of the 1987 bottlenose die-off.

Excerpted quotes from Chemical & Engineering News, March 30, 2009:

In 1987, hundreds of dolphins with lesions resembling burns or blisters washed ashore along the East Coast of the U.S. Initially, many animal rights organizations and some marine-mammal specialists suspected that chemical munitions the U.S. Army had dumped in the ocean during the past century may have been the culprit… Although the cause of dolphins’ lesions was subsequently determined to be morbillivirus, a virus similar to measles in humans, chemical exposure was a reasonable initial conclusion…. In the end, pathology workups and other analyses showed that the dolphins died of natural causes and not from exposure to chemical agents dumped in the ocean.

The whole article is worth reading. Again, thanks much for the comment.


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