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Harbor Branch loses 'most important program'

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of July 3, 2014)
Photo: HERA Permit Holder and Principal Investigator Dr. Greg Bossart examines an IRL dolphin aboard a specially designed research vessel surrounded by a team of hand-picked support and safety staff. 

Photo Credit: Dr. G.D. Bossart / NOAA Fisheries
Permit No. 998-1678-01

The recent firing of Steve McCulloch by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute has had disastrous consequences for marine mammal research in the Indian River Lagoon, including the loss of the HERA program.

HERA, which stands for dolphin Health and Environmental Risk Assessment, involved the annual temporary capture and detailed medical examination of bottlenose dolphins in the Lagoon by a crack team of scientists, veterinarians, students and volunteers.

Experts up and down the waterway say it was a fount of invaluable scientific information about dolphin health and the state of the lagoon.

“HERA was the most important research program at Harbor Branch and the No. 1 source of information about Indian River Lagoon dolphins,” says Harbor Branch Foundation board member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch. “I am heart-broken that they have lost the program due to firing Steve.”

“It is a giant loss,” says Jim Moir, chairman of the Marine Resources Council board of directors who was a volunteer boat captain with the HERA program. “Losing HERA at this critical time is a total pity, and it was completely preventable. Firing Steve McCulloch was a bad move and really unnecessary.”

“We have a very critical situation in the lagoon from one end to the other, with the loss of seagrass and the highest dolphin mortality ever the past year or two, so losing the stream of data that came from HERA is a serious blow,” says Grant Gilmore, Senior Scientist with Estuarine, Coastal and Ocean Science, Inc., who spent 32 years at Harbor Branch and is regarded as the foremost expert on fish in the lagoon. “We have lost a key means of gaining information about the state of the environment.”

Because bottlenose dolphins are a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is illegal to handle or capture them in the wild without special permission.

The HERA program at HBOI was conducted under a NOAA permit held by renowned marine mammal veterinarian Gregory Bossart – one of only three such permits issued nationwide – and organized and run by McCulloch.

When HBOI interim executive director Megan Davis fired McCulloch for supposed violations of NOAA protocols during a dolphin stranding at Sea Oaks in December – an action overwhelmingly condemned by the marine mammal research and rescue community – Bossart withdrew from the cooperative research arrangement with Harbor Branch.

HERA is a major scientific expedition involving as many as 10 boats and 75 people on the water over a two-week period capturing and doing 170-point examinations of un-sedated wild animals weighing as much as 450 pounds. It is a physically dangerous, logistically complex and scientifically challenging endeavor, which McCulloch has run flawlessly by all accounts.

A HERA expedition had been planned for this summer, but without McCulloch’s management expertise and on-water leadership, Bossart was not willing to undertake it.

“Dr. Bossart was the scientific lead on HERA,” says McCulloch. “I was the administrative, logistic and operations lead. HERA is a two-week operation but it takes six months of planning to get it set up.”

The loss of HERA has wide-ranging impacts, hurting HBOI researchers, agency managers, students, dolphins and ultimately the citizens of Indian River County and others who live along the lagoon.

“Everybody in the marine mammal program at Harbor Branch feeds off HERA – pathology, epidemiology, acoustics,” says McCulloch. “Now there is no new data coming in.”

“The immediate impact is to the countless scientific investigators and management agencies,” Juli Goldstein wrote in an-mail to Vero Beach 32963. “But HERA is not only a unique research platform. It is also a tremendous teaching tool for veterinarians and especially for pre-vet and animal science students whose career paths can be shaped or advanced by the HERA experience.”

Goldstein was the chief veterinarian in HBOI’s marine mammal program until she resigned in protest after McCulloch was fired, in her opinion unjustly.

McCulloch notes that marine park trainers from Sea World and elsewhere who participated in HERA also gained knowledge they could take back and use to educate the public, furthering the cause of protecting wild dolphins.

Losing HERA at this juncture, in the midst of an ecological crisis in the lagoon, is particularly unfortunate, according to McCulloch.

“This summer was a golden opportunity to find out why dolphins are dying,” he says. “It was the most strategically important scientific opportunity we have had to learn about the unusual mortality that has taken place.”

Besides losing the immediate knowledge that might have shed light on what is killing dolphins and possibly helped to discover measures to better protect them, the lack of a HERA expedition this summer harmfully interrupts the continuum of comparative knowledge that has been gained over a number of years.

“A lot of our most valuable work is done by reexamining animals we have already examined to see what has changed,” McCulloch says. “This year we were going to look at antigens and toxins that bio-accumulate in the dolphins.

“This was our best chance to determine what the dolphins may have been exposed to.”

Vero Beach ecologist David Cox says losing this year’s data undercuts the value of information gathered in previous years.

“The negative impact of interruption on seminal large-scale and long-term scientific investigations can be huge,” Cox says. “It also undercuts the value of the investment the citizens of Florida have made in funding HERA for years.”

HERA was funded mainly by revenue from sale of specialty whale and dolphin license plates that McCulloch got approved by the legislature years ago that still brings millions of dollars a year into Harbor Branch for marine mammal research.

Besides drying up the data spigot for researchers, depriving agencies of timely knowledge and taking away opportunities for students to learn about dolphins, field research methods and new technologies developed by the program, losing HERA endangers the general public to a certain degree.

“The dolphins are sentinels of ocean and human health,” McCulloch says. “They are the 400-pound canary in the coal mine. In the long run, what happens to the dolphins will happen to us to.”

Right now, what is happening to the dolphins has half of them sick enough to need medical treatment, according to a paper published by Bossart, including a third of them that are seriously ill.

“The loss of all that data about a species that is analogues to us and has a direct correlation to our health is awful,” Moir says.

“We are in full agreement that analysis of the health of live dolphins is very important to understanding not only the health of the environment, but also how it links to providing us insights into the health of human populations,” Megan Davis wrote in an e-mail to Vero Beach 32963.

She went on to write that other forms of research related to lagoon health that are ongoing at Harbor Branch are equally important in her opinion.

McCulloch says he is trying to revive HERA outside of Harbor Branch in consultation with Bossart.

“I am trying to raise in excess of $200,000 to conduct a 2015 HERA through traditional means of grant-writing, special contracts, philanthropic and corporate support,” McCulloch said.

“Vero Beach is one of the most generous and giving communities around and hopefully some will feel this is an effort worth supporting.