Dolphin Guru Stephen McCulloch Fired; Uproar Ensues

Categories: Broward News

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According to a January 6 letter to McCulloch from the Southeast Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that oversees marine mammal conservation, McCulloch on December 28 responded to a dolphin stranding at the Sea Oaks resort community in Vero Beach. (Atlantic Coast dolphins are in the midst of an officially declared Unusual Mortality Event, dying off in outsized numbers because of cetacean morbillivirus, a disease of the lungs and brain.)

The Sea Oaks dolphin was not a candidate for rehabilitation, according to the Fisheries Service, so regulations required that McCulloch get the feds' approval to move the animal so it could be euthanized and studied. A sudden, severe rainstorm moved in, however, and in line with his responsibility to treat the dolphin humanely and protect the public from infection (morbillivirus is not transmissible to humans but dolphins infected with it can develop secondary infections which may be transmissible), he moved it to a nearby swimming pool.

The January 6 letter described McCulloch's unauthorized transport of the dolphin and his failure to notify Sea Oaks management of health risks as "egregious violations." For that, the Fisheries Service suspended Harbor Branch from marine mammal rescue for 30 days and placed the institution on probation for a year. (It's a delayed suspension, because the Unusual Mortality Event is ongoing and Harbor Branch's services are critical.)

The Fisheries Service did not, however, ask that McCulloch be fired. That, it appears, was FAU's decision.

FAU media representatives have refused to discuss the matter, citing "a long-standing policy of not commenting on personnel actions." But in an official statement repeating the "egregious violations" language the school charged McCulloch with "possibly exposing" the public to "dangerous pathogens" and said he put Sea Oaks through the trouble and expense of draining and decontaminating the pool. (According to the Vero News, HBOI picked up that tab; set them back a grand. And no one on the scene is known to have taken ill.)

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McCulloch has been mum for the most part, on the advice of counsel, pending a grievance hearing. Many of his colleagues are up in arms, however.

As nicely recounted by the Vero News March 27:

Letters of support for McCulloch, many expressing astonishment at Harbor Branch's actions, have poured into the office of HBOI Interim Executive Director Megan Davis. Letters have also gone to top officials at Florida Atlantic University... and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"When I first heard about this, I was dumbfounded, I thought it was a hoax," wrote John A. Knight, an internationally known zoo and wildlife consultant, one of more than 50 veterinarians, research scientists, marine mammal rescue professionals and organization leaders who have bombarded Davis with lengthy, heartfelt letters.

"Termination of this contract is a grossly disproportionate reaction to his misdemeanor. I also fail to see how it could be to the benefit of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, or its national or international reputation."

This too from the Vero News:

Every stranding response is unique based on the species, animal's condition, weather, personal, bystanders, etc." University of Florida Aquatic Animal Health faculty member and doctor of veterinary medicine Craig A. Pelton wrote Davis a month after the vent. "Difficult decisions need to be made in difficult situations and sometimes the decisions made are not ideal or agreed on by everyone involved, but in this case no one was injured and the animal was treated humanely.

Most scathing of all have been the comments of Rick Trout, longtime lead rescuer for Key Largo's Marine Mammal Conservancy and a firebrand in the marine mammal community.

In an April 2 letter to the Vero paper, Trout described McCulloch as "the only bright spot on the East Coast and therefore the only hope that federally protected marine mammals have any hope of rescue/release."

Trout also went on the attack, claiming the fisheries service "has historically been an impediment to rescuing stranded dolphins and whales who come to our beaches for help" and "interfered with rescues by qualified rescuers." He called the agency's marine mammal rescue network "perennially mismanaged" and, explosively, charged it had:

allowed over 50 pilot whales including very viable juveniles and sub adults to die preventable drowning deaths, starvation deaths and dehydration deaths in a bungled operation in southwest Florida in January.

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