GALVESTON, Texas—Kristi Fazioli slowed the Boston Whaler and cut the engine when a fin finally emerged where the Houston Ship Channel passes Bolivar Peninsula. At the bow, Sherah Loe, a graduate student, readied her camera.
"Anybody have eyes on them?" Loe asked.
"No," Fazioli replied, with a laugh. "Just that one."
"They're sneaky," Loe said.
The group of researchers grew quiet and scanned the ripples. A minute slowly passed.
Then a dolphin leapt from the bay, its body glinting in the sun for a split second. Fins and tails belonging to at least nine animals, including two calves, quickly sluiced through the water. For 15 minutes, they swam around the boat, almost close enough to reach out and touch.
Fazioli heads the Texas Bottlenose Dolphin Research Collaborative, counting and cataloging the mammals as she and other researchers across the Gulf of Mexico try to rectify what the Deepwater Horizon disaster underscored—humans know close to nothing about local bottlenose dolphin populations, which can provide a wealth of information about the environment.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act, as amended in 1994, requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to study and report on dolphin species, population estimates, reproductive rates, major threats and other trends. But when scientists, government officials and congressmen focused on the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill, it became clear that the underfunded fisheries service hadn't done its job over the years and was depending on outdated data, much of it at least 10 years old.
Six years later, the problem persists. Many population estimates, according to the service's May 2015 report on bottlenose dolphins in bays and estuaries across the northern Gulf, are obsolete in a world where scientists constantly come up against a hard wall: Data more than 8 years old is considered scientifically useless, the Houston Chronicle reported.
The research expedition had begun at San Leon's Cat Point one recent morning, sunny but windy, with choppy waters as Fazioli steered the whaler toward the ship channels. The University of Houston-Clear Lake researcher paused a quarter-mile from shore to record water conditions, then picked up speed, directing the 25-foot boat along the Texas City Dike.
"This can be the tough part," she said, the breeze whipping at her hair. "Looking for dolphins does not just mean gazing out at the horizon."
It means hours at sea, eyes searching, fighting the glare, focusing on fins. Some days, the waters teem with dolphins, others they're nowhere to be found.
This day, the pod of dolphins made for a brief frenzy among the researchers. Loe shot a series of photographs, her quick-fire shutter mixing with the sound of rushing water. Fazioli wrote details from the sighting on a clipboard she would use, along with Loe's pictures, to build her growing catalog of Galveston Bay's dolphins.
Fazioli and other researchers say it's important to study dolphins because as top marine predators, they can serve as an indicator of the health of local habitats. Just as coal miners used canaries to recognize when the air became toxic, dolphins are a sentinel species that can serve as a warning system for harmful levels of contaminants in the ocean. They can also reveal other public health concerns: toxins, the effects of rising sea levels and global warming, the impact of natural disasters.
"They spend their lives being exposed to a lot of the same thing we are," Fazioli said. "They're eating the fish here."
During the last major die-off of dolphins in Texas, from late 2011 to early 2012, 123 dolphins stranded along the Texas coast. Dead fish, birds and coyotes were also discovered. After analysis, the National Marine Fisheries Service attributed the fatalities largely to harmful algal blooms and biotoxins also dangerous to humans. Fish from affected areas should not be consumed during the blooms.
Dolphins also keep low-level species in check, said William McGlaun, research director of the Texas Sealife Center in Corpus Christi.
The first step in understanding local dolphins takes the form of the photo identification surveys Fazioli conducts in upper Galveston Bay, and those McGlaun does from Matagorda Bay south to Laguna Madre, Mexico.
Dolphins are some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet and enjoy life spans nearly as long as humans. They live together in large groups, forming close relationships.
Bottlenose dolphins, some of the most recognizable marine mammals, inhabit both deep ocean and coastal regions, regularly venturing into bays and estuaries just offshore. The easiest type of dolphin to closely study, the bottlenose, is among eight other dolphin species residing in the Gulf of Mexico. Some bottlenose dolphins live nomadically and traverse long distances. Others are residents, dwelling in particular bays year-round—these are the subset Fazioli studies.
At UH-Clear Lake, Fazioli scrolled through her photo catalog. Each photograph carries information about when and where the dolphin was spotted, water conditions, and any interactions with ships or other animals. Framed closely around the dorsal fin—the triangular fin on the back—the photos are key to identifying individual dolphins. Nicks and markings on the fins are distinct, like fingerprints. Fazioli can immediately recognize Number 7, who has a deep, rounded indentation, or Number 8, who sports a relatively smooth fin.
"Each dolphin is a little bit different," Fazioli said.
Every animal is assigned a number, so it can be tracked over time. Fazioli's catalog has grown to include observations of 1,494 animals and 373 identified individuals.
Over time, the surveys can supply ample information: how many animals live in the area, how many calves they bear, how they behave and interact with the environment, if they start to show signs of adverse health.
In August, Fazioli and Loe, who is examining bottlenose dolphins' foraging habits, spotted an animal repeatedly leaping out of the water. As they approached, they saw a wad of fishing line wrapped tightly around the dolphin's fin. For almost an hour, they watched her futile attempts to free herself from the line, which dug so deep the fin bent backward.
She became known as Rapunzel—the fishing line dragging behind like the trailing hair from the fairy tale. They saw her again in September, and then October, with the line still wrapped around her. Eventually, the line will likely cut all the way through, and Rapunzel will lose the fin, Fazioli said.
"You feel pretty helpless, because there's nothing you can do," she said.
In theory, federal authorities should already be doing this work.
In 1994, Congress mandated that the National Marine Fisheries Service, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, should regularly prepare "stock assessment reports." They were to include where groups of different species reside, population estimates and trends, reproductive rates and major threats they face.
Faced with budgetary constraints, officials soon fell behind on the work. The agency periodically conducts aerial surveys over the open ocean, but the technique doesn't work in bays and estuaries—there, boat-based surveys provide the most accuracy.
The implications of the limited research became clear on April 20, 2010.
That day, an explosion ignited a massive blaze on the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon oil rig near the Mississippi River Delta. Eleven workers were killed. By the time the well was plugged two months later, an estimated 3.19 million barrels of oil had poured into the Gulf of Mexico.
At a June 2010 congressional hearing, Rep. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam, a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, wondered how the fisheries service would determine changes in dolphin population and habitat, since it had such limited data on dolphins and whales.
"I am not sure we will be able to get an exact answer to that," replied David Westerholm, director of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration. "We will obviously do the best we can."
Since then, researchers have linked nearly 1,500 stranded dolphins and whales, most dead, and failed pregnancies to Deepwater Horizon.
But what they couldn't determine: Exactly what percentage of the population died? How else would their health change? Would they shift their habitat use? Dolphins were spotted swimming through oil, covered in sludge—what would happen to them?
Instead of measuring damages directly, all authorities could do was prepare their best estimates. Pre-spill, officials estimated there were at least 20,000, and as many as 40,000, bottlenose dolphins Gulf-wide. Post-spill surveys led officials to update population estimates to just over 100,000, according to stock reports.
"It's always in the face of a disaster that we're reminded of our shortfalls and our weaknesses," said Ryan Fikes, a National Wildlife Federation Gulf scientist based in Corpus Christi.
Of the Gulf's 31 bay systems, 22 reference data from before 2000, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service's May 2015 report on bottlenose dolphins in bays and estuaries across the northern Gulf. Estimates for inshore Texas dolphins rely on data from 1992.
Studying local populations can be difficult and costly, officials said.
"There's a lot of bottlenose dolphins in a lot of places that we don't know much about," said Erin Fougeres, a fisheries service stranding program administrator.
Now, researchers across the Gulf are working to be more proactive in the wake of Deepwater Horizon. They say the spill provided an impetus for researchers to fill obvious data gaps.
Biologists at the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program in western Florida maintain detailed profiles on the area's 160 resident dolphins. And in 2012, the program began a collaboration to create the Gulf of Mexico Dolphin Identification System—a central repository for photo-ID catalogs.
"We have been caught already once without having the necessary information to most effectively assess the issues and the damages and what needs to be done to restore things," said Randall Wells, the program's director.
The Gulf of Mexico system includes 23 participants, including Cuba and Mexico, and the database now includes about 20,000 images, with 13,000 identified dolphins. Fazioli submitted her three years of work this week.
Over time, the system can become a powerful tool for indicating large-scale movements and population changes among identified animals, said Carolyn Cush, the database's curator. It will enhance conservation efforts by "capitalizing on work that's already been done."
Texas was largely shielded from the direct effects of the BP spill, but the state has suffered its own accidents.
On March 22, 2014, a 585-foot bulk carrier collided with an oil tank-barge near Texas City, releasing 168,000 gallons of fuel into Galveston Bay. It was the worst spill in the area since the 1990 Mega Borg spill dumped millions of gallons of oil off the coast.
As with Deepwater Horizon, assessing the immediate impact on dolphins proved difficult. Fazioli's work was getting underway, and she did not have enough data to assess impact and make before-and-after comparisons.
Down the road, Fazioli would like to create a Texas-specific dolphin catalog with researchers across the state, and begin water-contaminant testing. Both ventures require more funding.
Fazioli first started studying bottlenose dolphins as an undergraduate at Texas A&M University at Galveston, learning the basics of identifying dolphins through photo-ID work. When she returned to the Galveston area in 2012, Fazioli knew she'd likely find resident dolphins in the bay. But she soon discovered them farther north, in a highly industrialized area they hadn't occupied previously. The animals there eat and live alongside petrochemical plants, oil refineries, fishing operations and the nation's second-busiest port.
"Galveston is extremely busy," Fazioli said. "Certainly, the risk in this environment is very high."
Fazioli and McGlaun spend much of their time filling out grant applications, trying to fund their work. It doesn't take much money, but it needs to be sustainable. Their main expenses—boat fuel and salaries—aren't exciting, Fazioli says, but they make the work possible.
They say their time would be better spent out on the water.