A prominent dolphin researcher has been suspended from rescuing dolphins after he allegedly put a sick bottlenose dolphin in a Vero Beach resort community’s swimming pool — without permission — potentially exposing people to infection, according to Local 6 News partner Florida Today.
Steve McCulloch, founder and program manager of FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute’s Marine Mammal Research and Conservation program, had been rescuing a dolphin on the beach in front of the resort on Dec. 28.
He moved the dolphin from the beach to the pool, the letter said, before transporting it to a local veterinary clinic for euthanasia.
In a Jan. 6 letter to McCulloch, Roy Crabtree, administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ southeast region, referred to McCulloch’s actions as “egregious violations.”
According to the letter, the dolphin showed signs of morbillivirus, a measles-like virus responsible for almost 200 recent dolphin deaths from New York to Florida.
Although there are no known cases of dolphins spreading the virus to humans, dolphins with morbillivirus can get secondary infections that can be spread to people.
Chlorine only kills certain pathogens, depending on the strength of the chemical, NOAA officials said.
People federally permitted to respond to sick or injured dolphins must first get approval from the fisheries service’s stranding coordinator before moving a stranded marine mammal into a temporary holding pool, according to Crabtree’s letter.
“A responder would not have been authorized to put the dolphin into the swimming pool.
If the animal needed to be removed from the beach, it could have been moved to another more sheltered location on land,” NOAA officials said via email.
McCulloch could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
According to NOAA’s letter, “Sea Oaks had to undertake the costly measure of draining and decontaminating their pool.”
Last year, NOAA declared an ongoing “unusual mortality” event for bottlenose dolphins due the morbillivirus along the Mid Atlantic coast.
Earlier in the year, the agency had already declared a separate unusual dieoff of bottlenose dolphins — with unknown causes — for the Indian River Lagoon.
At least 76 bottlenose dolphins have died in the lagoon and 195 in the Atlantic, from New York to Florida, including 18 dolphins in the Sunshine State.
The dolphin that McCulloch recovered was later confirmed to be positive for morbillivirus and is the southernmost confirmed case of the disease in the mid-Atlantic mortality event so far, NOAA officials said.
FAU Harbor Branch officials said in a prepared statement: “Neither FAU nor HBOI management condone these ‘egregious violations.’"
Harbor Branch officials told FLORIDA TODAY that McCulloch hasn’t been employed at the research institute since Feb. 14, but gave no other details.
As a result of the incident, NOAA suspended Harbor Branch for 30 days from the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Network “once the current viral outbreak in the area is over.”
NOAA Fisheries also put Harbor Branch on immediate probation for one year, which includes quarterly reviews to make sure the institute is following proper dolphin rescue protocols.
“FAU respects the privacy of its employees and has a long-standing policy of not commenting on personnel actions.
However, the employee responsible for these actions is no longer involved with HBOI’s stranding network activities,” the statement said. “We will take all further necessary measures to help ensure we remain an active member of the stranding network so that we can continue the important work of helping marine mammals.”
Harbor Branch has been a lead responder for the Southeast National Marine Mammal Stranding Network for the past 15 years, covering the region from Sebastian Inlet to St. Lucie Inlet.
McCulloch has been at Harbor Branch since 1995.