Island University Researchers to Study Local Dolphin Population

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Dolphin sightings are a special part of visiting beaches, piers, and other locations around the Coastal Bend, but we know very little about our ocean-dwelling neighbors. A Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi researcher and Islander students plan to fill in the gaps thanks to support from the Frazier Family Foundation and Texas Parks and Wildlife.

Dr. Dara Orbach, assistant professor of marine biology, said a study of the common bottlenose dolphins that inhabit Corpus Christi Bay, Aransas Bay, and other bodies of water is especially needed because it has been about 30 years since these animals were studied.

“Dolphins living near coastal communities face threats from pollution, dredging, construction, shipping, fishing and even algal blooms,” Orbach said. “Their tendency to associate with shrimp boats, dredged channels, and jetties can lead to increased risk of injury and death from such interactions with boats and humans.”

Dolphins in this area also can face health threats due to harmful environmental conditions, such as dangerous skin lesions caused by low salinity after hurricanes or freshwater runoff. Low salinity conditions are thought to have been a factor in the deaths of 36 dolphins in Aransas Bay in 1992. Area dolphins’ ability to cope with increased levels of human activity is unclear, and researchers believe the animals could become an important bioindicator species to help assess the health and sustainability of the Coastal Bend ecosystem.

Orbach plans a three-year, collaborative project to better understand environmental impacts on dolphins, which will include researchers, students, and pilots. The project will provide population estimates, study habitat use, observe behavioral responses to human influences, and gauge the health status of the resident dolphin population.

Boats and unmanned aerial vehicles will be used to photograph dolphins, safely identifying the animals by recording the unique natural markings on their dorsal fins for identification. Aerial footage also will help in assessing the health of dolphins and observing behavior affected by interactions with human-related conditions in their environment.

Orbach has over a decade of experience researching and operating vessels around dolphins in Texas waters, and extensive experience analyzing UAV footage. She has established a substantial record of publications related to dolphin photo-identification, and has all federal permits to conduct this research.

Researchers plan to establish a collection of bottlenose dolphin photographs and footage by the end of the third year of the project in both the Corpus Christi area and the Laguna Madre high saline bay area. They will develop a new framework for water management, wildlife protections, rehabilitation following natural and human disturbances, and environmental stewardship. The project will include educational outreach and public presentations throughout Corpus Christi.

“Our proposed work will benefit two graduate student employees and approximately 100 undergraduate student volunteers,” Orbach said. “This will provide an essential pipeline of world-class, career-ready marine biology professionals to help propel and maintain Corpus Christi’s water quality and wildlife habitats for years to come.”

Orbach said the research and outreach activities directly align with the Frazier Family Foundation’s mission of supporting youth in the Corpus Christi region.

“Funds from the grant will support a two-week summer camp for area children, allowing them to interact with the local environment and learn about the importance of being good stewards of our natural resources,” Orbach said. “Our project will also enhance the quality of life for current and future youth, as the research will lay the groundwork for improved response efforts to protect dolphins and other wildlife following natural and/or human disturbances.”