ST. BERNARD PARISH, La. — Authorities are trying to figure out why nearly a dozen dolphins were found dead in St. Bernard Parish this month.

In Hopedale, along the waters of Bayou La Loutre, captain George Ricks spends most of his days on his boat.  

"I've been fishing out here all my life. You see pelicans, seagulls, you see hogs,” Ricks said.

But sightings of several dead dolphins around the waterway broke his heart.

“I've never seen this many dolphins dead," Ricks said.

Ricks said that he and his crew found two dead dolphins floating along the shoreline of Lake Coquille last week. The St. Bernard Parish Government says nine other dead dolphins have been found since then.

"Two of the carcasses were so badly decomposed, she couldn't make too much of it," Ricks said. "But one carcass definitely had fresh water lesions on it."

Ricks posted the pictures on Facebook. That’s when he said he got even more disturbing news from his friends.

"We've had 11 reported sightings within a 15-square-mile range and that's very unusual," Ricks said. 

Preliminary feedback from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries suggests that the dolphins are suffering from freshwater lesions because of the influx of freshwater after the Bonnet Carre Spillway was opened. Three living dolphins with the symptoms of freshwater lesions have been spotted in St. Bernard Parish since last week.

“These dolphins are acclimated," Ricks said. "They can stand brackish water, they can stand salt water, but they're not designed to live in freshwater."

Gabriella Vazquez is the Rescue and Rehab Coordinator for the Coastal Wildlife Network -- the only rehab program in the state which responds to stranded animals. She said she saw the images on Facebook as well.

“As far as the freshwater goes, freshwater lesions, it does happen when we see an uptick of freshwater in an area. That is something we are actually keeping our eye on with the opening of the spillway and all that. We are a little bit more on alert for any of those lesions that may be popping up on our dolphins,” Vazquez said.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently opened and then closed the Bonnet Carre Spillway to lower the risk of flooding in New Orleans.

"Our food, our way of life, our culture and our heritage is what makes Louisiana what it is and part of our culture and heritage our seafood and our fishing industries,” Ricks said. "If we lose our fishing industries and our seafood, what good are we?”

Officials with the Coastal Wildlife Network said they do tend to see an uptick in dolphin strandings during the spring, in part because there are more people out on the water to see them.

"The best thing to do is to take a picture for us. Get GPS coordinates. A description of the animal and you can call the Coastal Wildlife Network at 504-235-3005," Vazquez said.

She also recommended not touching the animal and to call them first. Dolphins are federally protected, so don't take any parts and don't push the animal back into the water as well, she said.

Whatever caused the recent sightings, Ricks said it's affecting the lives of dolphins and a way of life that's unique to Louisiana.

Anyone who has recently encountered a sick or dead dolphin is asked to send the following information to John Lane, executive director of coastal operations, at jlane@sbpg.net:

  1. Contact Information
  2. Date of Sighting
  3. Location of Sighting (GPS coordinated preferred)
  4. Pictures of Dolphin(s)
  5. Description of Dolphin(s) (mortality, size, color, etc.)