After a 240 Year Absence, Freshwater Dolphins Return to the Finger Lakes

 

 Above: An adult freshwater dolphin

By Daniel Merrinho for FingerLakes.com  ...Originally Posted April 1, 2017 - April Fools :) 

 

In what many are calling one of the greatest triumphs of science and conservation in the history of the United States, freshwater dolphins returned this morning to the waters of the Finger Lakes for the first time since 1787. The return of the dolphins comes as the result of an amazing combination of science, technology, passion combined with just a bit of old fashion luck. And while some are excited about the return of the dolphins, others are furious at the way in which it happened, and the many changes in store for residents and tourists alike.



Background: Freshwater Dolphins and Early Finger Lakes Explorers

Little known to most New Yorkers is the fact that freshwater dolphins once thrived in waters of the Finger Lakes.  The cool waters kept the size of these dolphins uniquely small - evidence suggest adults rarely reached 24 inches in length. Unfortunately, the species was highly sensitive to the Koffen-Phevre strain of the flu virus that was brought to the region by General Sullivan's Army in 1786.  Within 12 months of the first westerners reaching the area, the freshwater dolphin was gone. 


Bringing the Dolphins Back: A Graduate Student Won't Give Up

Above: The preserved dolphin that provided the DNA

In April of 2009, John Hammond, a Cornell Graduate Student in Marine Genetics was telling a friend about the freshwater dolphins he had recently seen on a trip to Brazil. In an amazing bit of coincidence, the friend he was telling the story to - Simone Aigues - was writing her dissertation on the changes in the ecosystems of New York State since the arrival of settlers - including the largely-unknown loss of the freshwater dolphin. Within days, Hammond, Aigues were working over breakfast on a plan to bring the dolphins back.  

With help of a $132 Million discretionary grant from Governor Cuomo and State Senator Donnie Mazuli, the secret Finger Lakes Innovation Porpoise Program, Eastern Region (F.L.I.P.P.E.R) was born. Hammond started the project by analyzing the DNA of the freshwater dolphins in Brazil, and then comparing the DNA from a baby freshwater dolphin preserved in amber that was found during construction of the Olney Place Deli on Keuka Lake in 2006. 

Incredibly - the DNA of the two species was 99.99% the same, with the .01% difference being the gene that controls the size of the dolphins.  This difference however was critical, as the full size dolphins would not be able to find enough food to survive in the Finger Lakes. Scientists were able to splice and edit the genes of the freshwater dolphin with gene 48zFG5A - known in genetics as the "short-n-stumpy gene" (the same gene responsible for the unusually small hands of President Trump). 


After the genes were spliced, embryos were created and implanted into female freshwater dolphins brought in from Brazil.  Four months later, and 6 years after F.L.I.P.P.E.R. was launched, 142 two-inch long baby dolphins were born. A breeding population was soon in place and at 6am this morning the State Department of Environmental Conservation introduced 2,200 dolphins each into Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka Lakes. 


                              
                          "Ace" - the first dolphin born in captivity                                Dolphins being released in Watkins Glen this morning



Big Changes Ahead for Visitors - Boating Restrictions and Swim Mittens
 
Yesterday property owners began receiving letters from the D.E.C. alerting them to the re-introduction of the dolphins, and to new regulations that have been put in place on Seneca, Cayuga and Keuka Lakes.   There are 37 regulations in total, however the two causing the biggest stir are related to swimming and boating.

Regulation 22E - Motorized Boating Ban:  Because the dolphins are very skittish when it comes to making sexy time,  the use of motorized watercraft of any kind is now prohibited in the waters of Keuka, Seneca and Cayuga Lakes during breeding season (May 1 - August 15).

Regulation 35A - Swim Mitten Requirement:  The preferred food of the dolphins in Brazil is the "Amazon finger worm" - a 3 inch long worm that has an uncanny resemblence to human fingers. In the muddy waters of the Amazon the dolphins have been known to mistakenly bite the fingers of swimmers, but in the clean, clear waters of the Finger Lakes it is expected to be an extremely common event. As a result, state officials now requiring that all swimmers wear dolphin-proof "swim mittens". Men are also strongly discouraged from skinny dipping.

Angry Residents Demand Answers

"This is ridiculous!" said April P.  Hurst, a cottage owner on the East Shore of Keuka Lake. "$132 million to fill my lake with dolphins?!! Why didn't the Barrington Town Board sue the State to stop this instead of wasting $50,000 fighting a small business owner?!!"

One lake over, it only took a few hours for the conspiracy theories to start. "Something is fishy" said Robert Greasie of Watkins Glen "Suddenly we can't use motorboats, we have to wear mittens while swimming. And just this morning a Swim Mitten and Kayak Rental shop opens up right downtown...and in a building owned by State Senator Donnie Mazuli?".   

In Ithaca, the tone was decidedly more pro-dolphin as a group of Cornell students waded into Cayuga Lake to create a safe space for the lake's newest residents. Chants soon begain "People are mammals and dolphins are too, keep them safe from people like you!"



Concerns? Questions? Contact Senator Mazuli



We spoke briefly with Senator Mazulli this morning in Geneva, and he seemed genuinely suprised with the blowback. He had no official comment but suggested residents email him with their concerns and opinions. His email is senatormazuli@gmail.com



UPDATE - President Trump has Weighed In!