Goodbye, Flipper: The Case of Greenpeace and the Dead Dolphins

Heather Graves

Writer’s comment: Environmental Studies 10 came at a fortuitous time last year. EST 10 was an unknown quantity, but it fell neatly into my schedule and so I enrolled, fingers crossed. Thus began one of the most eye-opening quarters I’ve ever had. Before this class, I thought I had a solid understanding of the environment, but I soon discovered that matters were worse than I’d ever suspected. All over the world there were environmental emergencies in need of attention.
      Oddly enough, a writing assignment, not a lecture, hit closest to home. Dolphins have fascinated me for years. I think that they show signs of extraordinary intelligence and should be prized and protected. There has been a lot of publicity about how the tuna industry’s fishing methods kill dolphins, and I thought that this was the only danger that man posed to the dolphin. So when term paper time rolled around in EST 10, I decided to do my paper on dolphins and the tuna industry. However, when I went to the library I could find only a few recent articles on dolphins. Disgruntled, I began to read one—and stared at the paper in shock. Dolphins washing up dead all over the Mediterranean and East Coast? Dolphin carcasses contaminated with everything from PCBs to distemper? Why hadn’t we heard about this sooner? This had to be investigated. I changed my topic on the spot. By the time I had compiled enough information to write my report, I was also scared stiff about the dolphins’ future. Bioaccumulation of PCBs and manmade toxins is destroying these creatures, and the public doesn’t even know it. The public’s attention is being concentrated on the tuna industry while the real problem skulks on the side and goes unsolved. If this mentality prevails in our dealings with the environment, I fear that we will lose much, much more than the dolphins.
—Heather Graves

Instructor’s comment: The detailed guidelines for the term paper in EST 10 are unusually demanding. Students must think and act professionally, as if they were the owners of a consulting firm. They must produce quality written work, close to something for which they might reasonably expect to be paid, in real money, by a real client, in the real world. To their credit, most approach this unfamiliar task seriously, so much so that in some cases it’s hard to imagine that the work was fun, as well as rewarding. But in this paper, Heather Graves has cleverly combined joyful learning with careful analysis. She writes as if she were a seasoned and street-wise private eye, but Greenpeace turns out to be her first case.
      Heather’s stylistic analogy is apt because finding and sifting hard evidence about cause and effect in environmental analysis is a lot like detective work. Political action often must be recommended before the scientific data are complete or conclusive. Many students shrink from the responsibility of working with and through this uncertainty, and from the tough thinking about the real world it requires of them. Heather is one of those who rose to the occasion, delightfully so.
—Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith, Political Science and Environmental Studies

The letter came a few weeks ago, and it came from Greenpeace. Our first case, and from the looks of it, it was a nasty one—the sort that either makes the fortunes of a struggling, young environmental consultancy or buries it for good under dirt that shouldn’t have been dug up in the first place. Some people call us environmental cops, some call us nosy, and a disproportionate number don’t call us at all, unfortunately. But Greenpeace had a case and, guided by whatever forces that favor small businesses, it had chosen Murray & Oxley, Investigators—Environmental (MOXIE) to do the job.
      The problem involved the recent deaths of dolphins in both the Mediterranean Sea and along the United States’ eastern seaboard. It seems that Greenpeace had heard it rumored that dolphins had been washing up dead along these beaches and wanted to know more. Why were the dolphins dying? How much of the population did these deaths represent? What were the causes? And what could Greenpeace do about it?
      The group had had some success formerly in upsetting the whaling industry in order to save the whales, but in this case their trademark publicity-stunt methods of protest wouldn’t work very well. Nobody knew who the bad guys were. Greenpeace wanted MOXIE to find out who was responsible and to come up with some good solid facts that would get the public’s attention. “Something juicy for the journalists,” they said. “All right,” we said. “Doesn’t sound too tough.” Famous last words—but even a small company has to sound professional. Even on its first case.
      So we knuckled down to the job and worked like dervishes to turn out a suitable report. I’ve included a copy of the finished product, but I’ve gotta warn you that we’re a little rusty at writing these things. Some of the protocols are all Greek to us, and so we just sort of prayed our way through the write-up and sent it off to Mrs. Cavenassy, who proofreads for a living. So here it is, our first report. Haul out the Perrier water; it’s a sentimental moment.

Dear Greenpeace (and members of):

As you asked a few weeks ago, we have researched the mysterious deaths of the dolphins in the western Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea. Our report consists of five parts, as follows: accounts of the deaths; sources of the likely chemical causes; mortality figures; past efforts to deal with the problem; and two potential courses of action for you to consider. We’ve even thrown in some free advice concerning the plan we think is the best.


The western Atlantic deaths occurred during the years of 1987 and 1988, during which over 740 dead common bottle-nosed dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) washed up on U.S. beaches ranging from New Jersey to Florida. The carcasses showed a variety of symptoms. Most bore pox-type lesions on their bodies and sloughing skin. Others contained high amounts of the red tide neurotoxin known as brevetoxin, which damages the immune system. Many of the dolphins carried DDT and other pesticides, PCBs, PPBs, and heavy metals in levels far beyond those considered safe for human consumption (Anderson, 1991). These findings are just to illustrate our points: we do not expect nor encourage anyone to try eating dolphins. Digging a little further into the effects of these toxins, we uncovered some very unpleasant facts about PCBs.
      PCBs, alias polychlorinated biphenyls, are produced as a by-product of certain types of industry and do not decay or break down. For years, they were dumped without regulation into rivers, where they quite naturally made their way into the oceans. PCBs, it seems, are like mercury: they are stored by small filter-feeders, and as these animals are eaten the PCBs in their bodies are stored in the fat of the predator (World Resources Institute [WRI], 1990). This process, called bioaccumulation, continues up the food chain, gradually building up higher and higher levels of PCBs. Enter the dolphin at the top of the food chain. He eats a lot of fish that are tainted with PCBs and builds up deposits of the stuff in his fat. When the dolphin metabolizes that fat, the PCBs are released into his bloodsteam, and PCBs are a known immunodepressant (Jones, 1991). They inhibit the immune system and make the dolphin much more susceptible to minor diseases that can eventually kill—an effect much like that of AIDS. Although U.S. investigators aren’t certain just what did kill the Atlantic dolphins, PCBs look highly suspicious. At any rate, the fact that so many different manmade toxins were found in the corpses, and in high quantities, indicates that human pollution was definitely a problem for these dolphins (Anderson, 1991).
      The washups in the Mediterranean Sea were a close match to those along the U.S. coast. In August 1990 over 50 dead striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba) washed up on Spain’s northeast coast, and over the next months several hundred more were found along the Mediterranean coastlines of Italy, France, and Spain. The symptoms displayed by these dolphins were all the same and rather sinister in character: all had died from a highly contagious form of distemper (FitzGerald, 1991). The largest numbers of dead dolphins were found near Mediterranean tourism centers, which are a rich source of raw human sewage and infectious bacteria (Jones, 1991).
      However, the scientists are still unable to pin down the exact cause of death (Jones, 1991). In general, it is agreed that the dolphins’ immune systems were impaired, but the bodies contained a variety of possible causes. Tests revealed the presence of chemical pollutants, various viruses, and bacteria; but not one of these was clearly responsible (FitzGerald, 1991). The Mediterranean dolphins also displayed skin lesions and blisters, and a few had high levels of red tide brevetoxin in their livers (FitzGerald, 1991). Others had extremely high levels of PCBs in their bodies (Jones, 1991). Once again, it seems most likely that the fatal substances were those which came from human industrial wastes.
      While researching cetacean deaths outside the United States, we also uncovered an account of beluga whale deaths in Canada's St. Lawrence Estuary. The St. Lawrence Estuary supports a small, isolated population of these small whales, but recently the belugas have been dying and washing up on the beaches at the rapid rate of one corpse per week. The causes of death are varied, ranging from digestive and immune problems to tumors in vital organs. However, all of the carcasses have been so heavily polluted that they must be treated as toxic waste (Jones, 1991). Not only has this toxicity made it difficult to handle and dispose of the dead belugas, but it also offers an alarming insight into the quality of the St. Lawrence Estuary environment. The St. Lawrence River runs from the Great Lakes through the United States’ main industrial areas, and recent testing has revealed that it carries a deadly soup of chemicals such as PCBs, Mirex, DDT, BAP, and PAHs—many of which have been completely banned in the United States. Where are they coming from then? Apparently, they are seeping out of several old dump sites along the river’s course. Thanks to this creeping influx of chemical outlaws, officials fear that the St. Lawrence beluga population will soon be wiped out completely (Jones, 1991).


Most of the wastes, such as PCBs, Mirex, heavy metals, and others best known by three-letter aliases were produced by industries. Some result from seepage out of old dump sites that can no longer hold their contents, and some come from illegal dump sites that were never properly contained in the first place. Unfortunately for the environment, a lot of these chemicals were not regulated at all for several decades, and much direct dumping into lakes and rivers also occurred. Today, even though restrictions and bans are in place, pollution continues in industrialized countries as the accumulated toxins of the past hundred years leach into waterways and travel to the seas (WRI, 1990). Developing countries have few or no such laws, and they are responsible for continued fresh input of these toxins from their burgeoning young chemical, plastic, and rubber industries (WRI, 1990).
      Another troublesome source of chemicals is agriculture. Pesticides and fertilizers are commonly used worldwide, no matter what is being raised or who is tending the crops. Runoff from the fertilized fields into rivers and lakes has led to a severe increase in nitrate levels in several areas of Europe (WRI, 1990). Furthermore, a study done by GEMS (Global Environmental Monitoring System) implies that pesticides, PCBs, and related synthetic organic chemicals are present in rivers all over the world. In the United States alone, figures for 1980 show that out of 150 rivers, 42-82% of the waters and sediments contained synthetic organochlorine insecticides (WRI, 1990). Further GEMS data show that certain lakes and rivers in Asia contain severely high levels of PCBs and some pesticides (WRI, 1990).
      With all of these pollutants present in rivers and lakes, it is not surprising that they would show up in the oceans. While the contamination of the oceans by drainage of polluted rivers is basically restricted to regions close to the coast, leaving the open ocean less polluted (WRI, 1990), this restricted pollution is not any great help to the dolphins. Dolphins naturally prefer to congregate in coastal areas, where the shallower, warmer water provides an abundance of food fish. The fact that these coastal fish are becoming increasingly exposed to toxic chemicals is not known to the dolphins. They come, they eat, and they die without even knowing what hit them.


The estimated mortality figures for dolphins as a species are high. Estimated dead run from one-fifth to three-fourths of the resident Tursiops population of the west Atlantic (FitzGerald, 1991). The National Marine Fisheries Service believes that at least half of the Tursiops population is dead, based on the fact that the washups in the past two years add up to more than ten times the total number of washups in previous years (Anderson, 1991). The fraction lost of the Stenella population is not known, but once again the recent washups are unusual and much greater in sheer numbers than any previously documented dolphin die-off (Jones, 1991).
      A second blow to the dolphin population comes from the effects on nursing calves. Since many of the toxins discussed are fat-soluble, they are stored in the dolphins’ fatty tissues. Dolphin milk contains a high percentage of fat, and contaminated fat means contaminated milk (Anderson, 1991). As a matter of fact, some of the highest levels of PCBs, PPBs, and heavy metals were found in the bodies of calves. With such a passing-on of the deadly chemicals, even the calves that survive are likely to be weak and shorter-lived; since they’ve already had their first installment of poison, it won’t take as long for them to build up to fatal levels. An entire generation of dolphins could be affected in this way (Anderson, 1991). The National Marine Fisheries Service has predicted that it could take an entire century for the Tursiops population to build back up to pre-1987 levels (Anderson, 1991).


Now we come to the second half of our report. In trying to come up with an effective course of action against this threat to the dolphins, we decided to review past measures. To our surprise, there really aren’t any laws or acts specifically aimed at protecting marine mammals from pollution. The United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 in an effort to encourage the survival of all marine mammals. This act tries to ensure that the tuna industry catches tuna with as little harm to dolphins as is possible. Its measures include taking action to restrict gear and enforce fishing techniques that aid dolphins snared in purse-seine nets; placing quotas on the numbers of dolphins killed per year; and forbidding the setting of nets in areas considered “dolphin-sensitive” (Marine Mammals and Fisheries, 1985). All of this is good, and the Act has proved particularly successful in past years. It is even beginning to extend its sphere of influence over the international tuna trade. However, the Act does absolutely nothing to protect the dolphins from marine pollution.
      The international effort shows a similar trend. The Global Investigation of Pollution in the Marine Environment deals generally with marine pollution, its sources, and the effects it has on the oceans’ life (Caldwell, 1990). An international list of rivers that empty out into the seas (appropriately called WORRI) gives information on just what pollutants these rivers are carrying (Caldwell, 1990). The 1972 London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter is a worldwide treaty with a “black list” of banned, undumpable materials. It also tries to control the dumping of other substances that are less harmful but still undesirable (Caldwell, 1990). These programs have drawn attention to the pollution of the world’s waterways and served to encourage cleanup efforts.
      There has been a special international effort in recent years to clean up the Mediterranean Sea. In 1974 and 1975 UNEP was approached by Mediterranean countries and asked to come up with a plan that would help the Mediterranean ’s ailing fisheries deal with problems caused by pollution. The resulting Mediterranean Action Plan, or Med Plan, was adopted at the Barcelona Convention of 1976 by all Mediterranean coastal states except Albania. Several pollution-monitoring and pollution-research programs were developed. One study, simply called Med X, mapped out land sources of pollution and found that a shocking 85% of the Mediterranean Sea’s pollution came from land sources. Of this pollution, 80-85% was dumped by rivers. Furthermore, 80% of the sewage that reached the Mediterranean was untreated, leading to a rash of infections, such as hepatitis and typhoid (Hass & Zuckman, 1990). The study also showed that, contrary to popular belief, the unhealthy levels of oil in the Mediterranean did not come from oil tankers. Instead, they came from car owners, who have the habit of dumping used oil into sewers. The oil quickly joins the stew of toxins in the Sea (Hass & Zuckman, 1990). Med X obviously uncovered a lot of unpleasant facts concerning the sources of the Mediterranean Sea’s pollution. However, not much action has been taken on these findings because so few nations in the area have decent guidelines concerning waste disposal and purification.
      PCBs are considered highly problematical (because their bioaccumulation endangers humans) and have been banned in the U.S. since 1976 (WRI, 1990); several other nations have followed this example. PCBs are not biodegradable and have spread via wind and water throughout the world. Their penchant for bioaccumulation has allowed them to crop up in virtually every species of organism, including humans (WRI, 1990). Studies have shown that PCBs are capable of creating a mishmash of problems: according to World Resources, they can cause “wasting disease, tumors, liver damage, reproductive failure, and birth defects” (WRI, 1990). So, until science comes up with a way of purging the PCBs out of the environment, they will always be a threat.
      There is a bright ray of light on the horizon, and that is the growing public concern for dolphins. Dolphins are seen as beautiful, slightly comical, and basically harmless creatures. In the United States, many southern coastal areas make a tidy living from tour-boat cruises whose list of delights includes the company of a playful pod of dolphins. As a result, several small private organizations—run by concerned citizens—have taken it upon themselves to monitor the dolphins in these areas. Most of these groups are small, but a few big ones exist, like the Randall S. Wells Project, which began in 1970 and monitors over 1,200 dolphins off the Florida coast near Sarasota. The Dolphin Project, begun in July 1989, covers over one-third of the Georgia coastline: volunteer workers tally the numbers of dolphins sighted and record their behaviors (Anderson, 1991). The Project uses a small fleet of privately owned seacraft and is funded by a volunteer fee or $45 per person per observation trip. The volunteers also pay such costs as housing, travel, and food. These measures keep costs down to a point where the Project is actually quite successful: the members are able to fund a continual, up-to-date slide catalog—roughly 5,400 slides—of the individual dolphins that they observe (Anderson, 1991). Such groups provide a valuable source of information on dolphin habits, information that is essential to those interested in protecting these creatures.


Protecting the dolphins is not going to be an easy task: we feel that we ought to warn you that this time, unlike with the whales, there is no single industry or nation causing the problem. The many different sources of oceanic pollution are located all over the world. However, there are two possible courses of action for you to take:

(1) Play the game of legislation and lobby against the current use of PCBs, DDT, and pesticides by both modern and developing countries. Encourage the passing of worldwide bans on these chemicals, and submit petitions to governments all over the world that urge them to help each other break the toxic-chemical habit. Lobby against oceanic dumping and pollution: try to get nations to update their industries so that the marine environment isn’t stuck trying to deal with millions of gallons of crud pumped directly from the factory.
      You might also consider appealing to existing organizations, such as UNEP, that have strong interests in protecting the environment. These groups have many connections with both developed and developing countries all over the world. If UNEP could be convinced to support an oceanic cleanup, you would have a very strong ally. Other possible allies include funding agencies such as the World Bank: if the Bank threatened to cut off industrial funding for development projects that currently pollute rivers and oceans, it is almost certain that rapid improvements would occur.

(2) You can follow the example of the small local groups and establish an international organization whose goal is to protect the dolphins. By using the dolphin-watch methods already in practice along the U.S. East Coast, such an organization could keep better track of exactly where the dolphins are getting sick. With this information, it would be easier to track down the rivers and/or dump sites that are currently causing so much trouble.
      In order to staff such a project, your organization could use volunteers. There are many such volunteer efforts already established and doing well on the East Coast (Anderson, 1991). Furthermore, volunteers will help attract the interest of the general public. Who wouldn’t be curious about the “Save the Dolphins” effort after hearing about it from a friend who had been directly involved?
      The organization could also write up and submit to national governments rough drafts of treaties that planned a steady reduction of oceanic pollution around the globe. It could unify all of the small groups and turn them into a real power. And it could even start funding scientific efforts to find alternatives to the toxic chemicals in industry. By appealing to the World Bank and other such “environmentally conscious” funders, the organization could raise money for such efforts, especially if the volunteer dolphin-watch program is already going strong and can supply good, solid evidence about environmental harm.

In all honesty, it is the advice of our company that you take what’s behind Door Two. An international organization is much more suited to the scale of your problem. Oceanic water circulation brings pollutants to all coastlines and zones eventually; this makes the seas a “global commons,” an area which is every person’s concern (WRI, 1990). In order to be truly successful , any measures taken must prevent pollution one hundred percent. If even a few nations keep on dumping chemicals into the oceans, the effort will be nearly negated. Besides, no one country can stand alone against the world in such a policy. It must be a unified effort by everyone.
      Incentives to get international cooperation could also include offers of government aid to developing nations if they comply, bonuses for companies that make the changes quickly, and a whopping big prize for the scientist who comes up with a way to remove PCBs from the environment—without damaging it further, of course. Once again, the World Bank could be the source of the funds for this. However, we think that the public will also be an excellent source of donations once word gets around of the danger dolphins are in. Flipper was a popular American TV show that portrayed dolphins as harmless good guys with permanent goofy grins. That’s the cheery image of dolphins that most of the public holds today. Nobody wants to see them die off just because humanity couldn’t clean up after itself in time.


Anderson, K. F. (1991). Georgia’s dolphin quest. Defenders, 66, 9-15.

Beddington, J. R., Breverton, R. J. H. & Lavigne, D. M. (Eds.). (1985). Marine Mammals and Fisheries. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Caldwell, L. C. (1990). International Environmental Policy. London: Duke University Press.

FitzGerald, L. M. (1991). The miner’s canary? Sea Frontiers, 37, 38-42.

Hass, P. M. & Zuckman, J. (1990). The Med is cleaner. Oceanus, 33, 38-42.

Jones, P. (1991). What caused dolphin deaths? Marine Pollution Bulletin, 22, 4.

World Resources Institute. (1990). World Resources 1990-91. New York: Oxford University Press.