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Harbor porpoise deaths

Marin Headlands

As of last Friday, the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands has performed necropsies on the carcasses of 23 harbor porpoises that have washed ashore since mid-May 2008. The animals have washed up on beaches from Marin to San Luis Obispo.

Although the number of harbor porpoise carcasses that have washed up this year is only slightly higher than average, the causes of death are being actively investigated. The center spokesperson, Jim Oswald, said that the preliminary causes of death for some of the porpoises were trauma, pneumonia, and asphyxiation.

The experts are trying to determine whether the deaths are related to domoic acid poisoning, which is associated with harmful blooms of a certain red alga and a particular genus of diatom. Domoic acid acts as a neurotoxin in mammals, including humans, and produces permanent loss of “short-term memory,” other brain damage, and death, in severe cases.

If you have been reading this blog long enough, you may recall that in 1961, hundreds of seabirds affected by domoic acid attacked people in Capitola. Alfred Hitchcock, who was a frequent visitor to nearby Santa Cruz, read of the incident, which served as inspiration for his film “The Birds,” shot farther north in Bodega Bay.

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