Gulf of Mexico

Protecting Dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico

Ocean Conservancy atlas illustrates key habitat areas for Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf.

Dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico - Dolphins are an important indicator species for the health of the Gulf. Photo: NMFS Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico are in trouble.

Unprecedented numbers of these dolphins have died over the last few years in what scientists call an unusual mortality event. The causes of this die-off are unclear, and research is ongoing to determine what’s happening.

What we do know is that the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster spilled over 4 million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, and we are only just beginning to realize the full impacts on wildlife like dolphins.

When scientists looked at dolphins living in Barataria Bay, Louisiana, an area of the Gulf known to be heavily oiled, they found that many of them were underweight, anemic and showing signs of lung and liver disease, as well as other health issues.

This is troubling news because Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are an iconic species in the Gulf and play a key role in the Gulf food web as apex predators, keeping other species in balance. These dolphins are also an important species for tourism, helping draw visitors to the region.

As many as 40,000 of these dolphins are estimated to live in the Gulf—about 30 percent of the total bottlenose dolphin population in U.S. waters.

It’s important to know where these dolphins live, so that we can develop stranding networks to respond to injured animals. Knowing where to look for dolphins also makes it easier to see where they may encounter possible threats, such as fishing and oil and gas development activities.

That’s why Ocean Conservancy has developed a suite of maps that provide a big-picture view of the Gulf of Mexico and its resources, including wildlife like dolphins.

This map helps illustrate where in the northern Gulf of Mexico you are most likely to find an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. The probable distribution data in this map is combined with information about the six different stocks of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf.

Scientists determine probable habitat areas based on environmental conditions, such as water temperature and salinity, as well as time of year. By identifying key habitats, we can learn more about what dolphins need to survive in the Gulf and how we can help protect them.

For example, the Summer Distribution Map indicates that Atlantic bottlenose dolphins are most likely to be found along the west coast of Florida. This raises interesting questions, such as:

  • Why are we more likely to find dolphins here than in other areas?
  • Is there a unique food source here in the summer?
  • Is this an area we should consider for conservation or protection?

Long-term research and monitoring will help us better understand dolphin populations and where they live throughout the Gulf.

Help Ocean Conservancy restore a healthy and prosperous Gulf of Mexico for the wildlife and the people who depend on this vital resource.

Restore The Gulf of Mexico

Learn how you can help us restore the Gulf of Mexico and other special places across our ocean.


The Gulf of Mexico Ecosystem: A Coastal and Marine Atlas

Ocean Conservancy atlas helps decision-makers chart recovery in the Gulf.

Restoring the Gulf of Mexico

Degradation in the Gulf threatens fish, wildlife, the places where they live and the people who depend on a healthy ocean for jobs and business.

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