After 240 Year Absence, Freshwater Dolphins Return to Lake Erie
4/1/2022 (Update: APRIL FOOLS)
By Daniel Merrinho
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 Lake Erie for the first time since 1791.
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 Explorers
Little known to most New Yorkers is the fact that freshwater dolphins once thrived in waters of Lake Erie. The cool waters kept the size of these dolphins uniquely small compared to their ocean swimming cousins - evidence suggest adults rarely reached 24 inches in length. Unfortunately, the species was highly sensitive to the kwomo-handsee bacteria that was brought to the region by French explorers. Within 12 months of the explorers reaching Lake Erie , the freshwater dolphin was gone.
Bringing the Dolphins Back: A Graduate Student Won't Give Up
In April of 2009, John Hammond, a University of Buffalo 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 Lake Innovation Porpoise Program, Eastern Region (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 project that turned things around in Buffalo - 13 story downtown Bass Pro Shop.
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 during the winter. 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 former 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 L.I.P.P.E.R. was launched, 142 two-inch long baby dolphins were born.
A breeding operation was set up at the former Fantasy Island site (fun wow!) and at 6am this morning the State Department of Environmental Conservation introduced 2,200 dolphins into the waters of the Erie Basin Marina.
Big Changes Ahead for Lake Erie - Boating Restrictions and Swim Mittens
Yesterday Lake Erie 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 Lake Erie. 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 non-essential motorized watercraft (N.E.M.W.) of any kind is now prohibited in the waters of eastern Lake Erie 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 Protest & Demand Answers
"This is ridiculous!" said April P. Hurst, a cottage owner in Hamburg. "$132 million to fill Lake Erie with dolphins?!! That money could have been spent on far more important things, like finding some offense for the Sabres!"
At the Bar Bill Tavern in East Aurora, it only took a few hours for the conspiracy theories to start. "Something is fishy" said attorney Emily Samolds "This probably started with Cuomo and now Hochul is trying to keep our attention away from downstate. Something big is going on....you just know it"
For others, the tone was decidedly more pro-dolphin. A large group of college students home on break went to the marina and waded into the waters to create a safe space for the lake's newest residents. They began by shouting words of encouragement to the dolphins, before unsuccessfully trying to convince them to become vegans.
Many Unanswered Questions Remain
It is too early to know how this news will play out over the next few months, but many critical questions remain. Among them:
What will the impact be on the boating industry?
Will the dolphins be allowed in Canadian waters this summer?
How can Tom Brady be so damn annoying?
Concerned? Contact Senator Mazuli
We spoke briefly with Senator Mazuli this morning in Albany, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org