Researcher Claims She Was Fired for Connecting $1.4B Coastal Project to Dolphin Deaths

A Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries employee was fired in 2019 for a cause she claims was simply raising concerns about a billion-dollar coastal restoration project she believed was harming and killing bottlenose dolphins.

Gulf Coast researchers are now raising alarms about the same project, and a report from the Louisiana Illuminator highlights the nuance in the coastal project and the employee's story.

Mandy Tumlin was the Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries [LDWF] whose job was to collect data surrounding dolphin deaths in the state.

When she was fired in 2019, records showed her termination was due to a performance failure in entering data into an online system about dolphin and sea turtle strandings by a federal deadline. However, Tumlin's lawyer, J. Arthur Smith III, said those allegations were untrue.

In 2019, the Bonnet Carre Spillway was open for a total of 118 days to relieve pressure on the Mississippi River levees in New Orleans, according to the Louisiana Illuminator.

That year, a total of 337 dolphins were found on beaches along the Gulf Coast, and only nine of them survived, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Tumlin expressed that the dolphins were dying due to freshwater lesions from the second opening of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, but said she was unable to discuss the issue with reporters. "When media requests came in, I had to toe the line as a state employee," she said. "It felt like there was just this constant roadblock."

The Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion is a $1.4 billion restoration project that would involve creating an opening in the Mississippi River levee south of New Orleans that would bring river water into Barataria Bay, in an effort to rebuild the wetlands.

Other researchers now have concerns for this project, given that the possibility of even more dolphin deaths could be even greater.

Captain George Ricks, a vocal opponent of the project, was Tumlin's ally in the situation. He said, "They put me under oath and asked me if there was any reason that I saw that she should have been terminated. I said no."

"I'll give you my opinion," he added, "She got terminated because they didn't want her saying too much about the river water causing these dolphins to die."

Tumlin still holds concern for the animals' welfare, knowing the project could damage the ecosystems further, and the dolphins who inhabit them. She said, "These diversions are going to cause the salinity levels in these areas to drop drastically," she said. "We can't catch 2,000 or more dolphins and move them."

A study requested by the Marine Mammal Commission that was submitted in May found the project could result in a "functional extinction" of dolphin populations in two areas of Barataria Bay. The study said the deaths resulted from prolonged exposure to freshwater, which gives them burn-like lesions, making them more susceptible.

Tumlin is currently battling the LDWF in a court of appeal, and an LDWF spokesman told the Louisiana Illuminator the state civil service will make a decision on the case in the next few months.

Newsweek reached out to Mandy Tumlin for additional comment but did not hear back in time for publication.

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins
An employee of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was fired in 2019 for what she claims was trying to raise concern for dolphins dying due to a $1.4 billion coastal restoration project. A group of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin [Tursiops aduncus] swimming in one of the largest lagoon of the world on November 24, 2017 in Mayotte, Indian Ocean. Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images