Story at a glance:
- A former Louisiana government researcher for marine wildlife says her department fired her after she blew the whistle about a water-diverting system that likely led to 337 dolphin strandings.
- By raising alarms about the Bonnet Carre Spillway, the researcher in turn hindered the state’s $1.4-billion plan to rebuild the eroding delta by diverting sediment flow of the Mississippi River.
- The Mississippi and surrounding waters are home to an estimated 5,000 dolphins, the largest population in the country.
Mandy Tumlin, a former Louisiana government researcher for marine wildlife, says her department fired her after she blew the whistle about a water-diverting system that likely led to 337 dolphin strandings — killing all but nine of them.
Tumlin worked as the Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) from 2005 to 2019. The year Tumlin was fired, she brought attention to how the Bonnet Carre Spillway — an emergency system that diverts water from the Mississippi River into Lake Pontchartrain — was causing 2019’s mass dolphin death event, according to reporting from the Louisiana Illuminator and The New York Post.
Open for 118 days, the spillway resulted in a dangerous influx of freshwater into the Gulf through the Rigolets strait and Chef Menteur Pass, according to The New York Post. The sudden and abundant rush of freshwater caused burn-like lesions on dolphins, making them more susceptible to infections, strandings and deaths.
By raising alarms about the Bonnet Carre Spillway, Tumlin in turn hindered the state’s $1.4-billion plan to rebuild the eroding delta by diverting sediment flow of the Mississippi River, The New York Post reports. The project is called the Mid-Barataria Bay Sediment Diversion Project.
According to Louisiana Illuminator, LDWF documents say Tumlin was fired for failing to enter data into an online system about dolphin and sea turtle strandings by federal deadlines. Tumlin’s lawyer, J. Arthur Smith, III, said that her firing was “bogus” and a “contrived set up,” and that his client met all her deadlines.
“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,” Tumlin told the Illuminator.
Tumlin said her superiors created “constant roadblock[s]” when it came to speaking to the press about the Bonnet Carre Spillway and its role in dolphin strandings. Conversely, she was allowed to do interviews in 2017 when reporters made requests about sperm whale strandings, according to the Louisiana Illuminator.
The diversion project would cause a “functional extinction” of dolphin populations in two areas of the Barataria Bay region of the Gulf where bottlenose dolphins once populated, according to the Marine Mammal Commission.
The Mississippi and surrounding waters are home to an estimated 5,000 dolphins, the largest population in the country, Moby Solangi, Executive Director of the Institute, told WLOX in 2019.
George Ricks, Gulf advocate and boat captain, testified on behalf of Tumlin during the Louisiana State Civil Service proceedings held in January 2020. He spoke against her termination, saying “she got terminated because they didn’t want her saying too much about the river water causing these dolphins to die.”
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