Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Louisiana government researcher says she was fired for raising alarm about dolphin deaths

A dolphin found stranded in St. Bernard Parish in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Mandy Tumlin)

According to studies, a major coastal project could lead to more dolphin fatalities.

This story was published in partnership with Louisiana Illuminator. 

Gulf Coast researchers are raising alarms about a $1.4 billion coastal restoration project’s potential to kill and injure bottlenose dolphins. Now, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries employee whose job it was to count dolphin deaths in the state says she was fired in 2019 because her work reaffirmed the potential of the project to devastate a dolphin population.

Mandy Tumlin was the Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, or LDWF. The year she was fired, the Bonnet Carre Spillway was open for a total of 118 days to relieve pressure on the Mississippi River levees in New Orleans. Fresh water from the river spilled into Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi Sound. A total of 337 dolphins were found on beaches along the Gulf Coast that year, and only nine of those survived, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Tumlin said it was “disappointing, and completely disheartening” to be fired from her position while a large number of dolphins were dying from freshwater lesions due to the second opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway in 2019. “We feel that this was done so that the State of Louisiana can proceed with its plan to construct and operate the Mid-Barataria Bay and Breton Sound Diversion Projects which will actually be lethal on dolphin populations in those areas due to freshwater lesions and other impacts,” she said.

LDWF documents show that Tumlin was fired for failing to enter data into an online system about dolphin and sea turtle strandings by a federal deadlines. Tumlin’s lawyer, J. Arthur Smith, III, said the allegations are untrue. “The termination was a bogus, contrived set up,” he said. “Mandy made all deadlines for which she was responsible.”

Tumlin began working for the department in 2005. She responded to marine mammal strandings during the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, saving hundreds of sea turtles. “I gave my life to this. I missed out on celebrations and holidays,” she said. “My personal cell phone was the statewide hotline for marine mammal strandings. I was on call constantly.”

When the 2019 openings of the Bonnet Carre Spillway were blamed for dolphin deaths, she said she was not given permission to talk to reporters about the issue. “When media requests came in, I had to toe the line as a state employee,” she said. “It felt like there was just this constant roadblock.” However, when reporters had made previous requests for information about sperm whale strandings in 2017, she was allowed to do interviews.

Among those who felt they weren’t able to get information out of Tumlin while she was employed by LDWF was Capt. George Ricks, a vocal opponent of the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion, a proposed $1.4 billion project to create a controlled opening in the Mississippi River levee south of New Orleans that would flush river water into Barataria Bay in an effort to rebuild wetlands with sediment carried by the river. The project would allow fresh water to pass through the levee for longer durations than the spillway was opened in 2019, which could lead to more dolphin fatalities.

“There were a couple times I asked her in texts, ‘Is river water what’s killing these dolphins?’ She never would say,” Ricks said.

Ricks testified in one of three meetings the Louisiana State Civil Service held after Tumlin appealed her dismissal in January 2020. “They put me under oath and asked me if there was any reason that I saw that she should have been terminated. I said no,” he said about the testimony. “I’ll give you my opinion: She got terminated because they didn’t want her saying too much about the river water causing these dolphins to die.”

A LDWF spokesman said the state civil service is expected to make a decision on the case in the next few months. The department denies that Tumlin’s dismissal had anything to do with the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion.

A federal draft environmental impact study released in March for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project also acknowledged its potential to have “immediate and permanent major adverse impacts” on the bottlenose dolphin population in Barataria Bay. A study requested by the Marine Mammal Commission that was submitted in May found that the diversion would result in “functional extinction” of dolphin populations in two areas of Barataria Bay. The study attributed the deaths to prolonged exposure to freshwater, which causes burn-like lesions on dolphins. 

“Freshwater lesions will make them more susceptible to viral infections that will cause mortality,” Tumlin said. “Their skin turns into what looks like a brillo pad.” Tumlin said she was not given adequate resources to do her work responding to calls about marine mammal strandings, including dolphins.

LDWF did not replace Tumlin after she was fired in December 2019. The agency handed over her responsibilities for responding to and reporting marine mammal strandings to Audubon on October 1, 2020, according to the department. In Tumlin’s absence, Moby Solangi, executive director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, grew concerned that marine mammal deaths were not fully counted in the transition to Audubon taking over. “I know there’s some controversy about it,” he said. “A large amount of animals were not recovered because of this sudden change.”

More than 150 of the dolphins found dead in 2019 turned up in Mississippi, where Solangi is based. He blames the spillway opening for the dolphin deaths, as well as oyster, blue crab and shrimp fatalities. More than 50% of the stranded dolphins in Mississippi had sores on their body from low salinity, he said. “These animals cannot just swim away,” Solangi said. “By the time they realize things are bad, they are sick and die.”

Dolphins have a very strong affinity to the areas where they live and are unlikely to move away when their environment becomes inhospitable, Solangi said. “It’s like saying every time there’s a hurricane people from Louisiana should move,” he said. 

Despite no longer being the state stranding coordinator, Tumlin is still concerned about the future of marine mammals in Louisiana waters. “These diversions are going to cause the salinity levels in these areas to drop drastically,” she said. “We can’t catch 2,000 or more dolphins and move them.”

Sara Sneath is an award-winning environmental reporter based in New Orleans. Email her tips at saraksneath@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @sarasneath.

CORRECTION: Tumlin’s LDWF termination documents charge her with missing multiple federal deadlines regarding standings of dolphins and sea turtles, not one federal deadline.