Changes in the Water, Changes on the Planet

No indication has been forthcoming about what caused the deaths of three, possibly four, dolphins found washed ashore along the ocean here and another discovered in distress in Three Mile Harbor. Whether or not a definitive cause of death is determined, the fact that several dolphins ended up separately over a relatively wide stretch of the East Hampton coastline in the space of a few days is cause for concern. 

Dolphins, like other marine mammals, are protected by federal law. They were here frequently during the summer, feeding on schools of menhaden, or bunker, often very close to shore. Chasing bait along the beach could have had something to do with the recent deaths; speculation among some observers has centered on commercial gill-netters, who have been working in the area in recent years. However, simple proximity does not make a case, and it would be wise to wait for an official report.

All may not be as fine in the ocean here as it appears. Humpback whales also were spotted during a several-week period this summer, feeding, like the dolphins, on the bunker schools. In the frenzy, some people saw nature’s miracle, signs of health and abundance. However, that may well have been wrong, at least as far as the whales are concerned.

According to researchers, disruptions among prey species in the Gulf of Maine caused by rapidly warming ocean water have forced hungry whales to migrate away from their usual feeding areas. These movements have put them increasingly at risk of strikes by ships. 

The critically endangered right whale population has lost 15 of its approximately 450 remaining individuals since April. Other kinds of whales suffered as well — including 53 humpbacks known to have died in about a year and a half, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration described as an “unusual mortality event.” A depressing account appeared in a recent Science section of The New York Times, linking shifts in the food that whales depend on to increased accidental killings.

Now it appears that the whales, which thrilled many South Fork beachgoers this summer, might have been a sign of a planet out of balance. The dolphins’ appearance here does not seem right, either. We may never know what caused their deaths, but it should remind us to keep a close eye on the sea — and to continue to press for action to reverse the climate trends that are putting both humankind and the wild world at risk.