Assessing the effect of harbor expansion on the abundance and distribution of bottlenose dolphins in Charleston Harbor South Carolina using a spatially-explicit population model




Greater Copenhagen area

Marine infrastructure development and expansion are required to adapt to the growth and diversification of blue economies which many countries are prioritizing to stimulate national economic growth. We need to ensure that the environmental footprint of these construction activities does not impair national efforts to maintain and restore biodiversity.

The deepening of Charleston Harbor (South Carolina) is a national priority project in the USA to increase the region’s shipping volume and activities. A population of bottlenose dolphins resides in this harbor (Bossart et al. 2017, Bouchillon et al. 2020, Weinpress-Galipeau et al. 2021) which have been exposed to about two years of construction activities (primarily dredging) for this project. We know that these human activities are stressors for this species which can affect their distribution and density (Pirotta et al. 2013). However, there is currently no information about the potential impact of such a large-scale marine construction effort on bottlenose dolphin abundance and distribution. As the blue economy will require such large-scale infrastructure development more regularly over the coming decade, we need to learn from Charleston Harbor’s experience to better predict and manage the conservation impacts of harbor expansion on dolphins.

In this project, you will use a unique pre-existing dataset of photo-identification surveys carried out for two years prior to the construction starting and two years during construction to assess whether the distribution and abundance of bottlenose dolphins changed during construction in Charleston Harbor. You will use spatially-explicit mark-recapture models (Christiansen et al. 2015, Pirotta et al. 2015a, 2015b) to determine whether the population distribution changed in the harbor as construction progressed. For those individual dolphins photographically captured regularly, you will assess whether their movement and distribution are associated with the dynamics of construction activities in the harbor.

This information will be used to determine the impact of the harbor deepening in this ecologically and socially important species as well as help inform global impact assessments. You will have the opportunity to interact with our South Carolina Aquarium partners throughout the project and help in the dissemination of your findings beyond peer-reviewed publications.


Bossart, G. D., P. Fair, A. M. Schaefer, and J. S. Reif. 2017. Health and Environmental Risk Assessment Project for bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus from the southeastern USA. I. Infectious diseases. Diseases of Aquatic Organisms 125:141–153.

Bouchillon, H., N. S. Levine, and P. A. Fair. 2020. GIS Investigation of the relationship of sex and season on the population distribution of common bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in Charleston, South Carolina. International Journal of Geographical Information Science 34:1552–1566.

Christiansen, F., C. G. Bertulli, M. H. Rasmussen, and D. Lusseau. 2015. Estimating cumulative exposure of wildlife to non‐lethal disturbance using spatially explicit capture–recapture models. The Journal of Wildlife Management 79:311–324.

Pirotta, E., J. Harwood, P. M. Thompson, L. New, B. Cheney, M. Arso, P. S. Hammond, C. Donovan, and D. Lusseau. 2015a. Predicting the effects of human developments on individual dolphins to understand potential long-term population consequences. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282.

Pirotta, E., B. E. Laesser, A. Hardaker, N. Riddoch, M. Marcoux, and D. Lusseau. 2013. Dredging displaces bottlenose dolphins from an urbanised foraging patch. Marine Pollution Bulletin 74:396–402.

Pirotta, E., P. M. Thompson, B. Cheney, C. R. Donovan, and D. Lusseau. 2015b. Estimating spatial, temporal and individual variability in dolphin cumulative exposure to boat traffic using spatially explicit capture–recapture methods. Animal Conservation 18:20–31.

Weinpress-Galipeau, M., H. Baker, B. Wolf, B. Roumillat, and P. A. Fair. 2021. An adaptive bottlenose dolphin foraging tactic, “shipside feeding,” using container ships in an urban estuarine environment. Marine Mammal Science 37:1159–1165.


In collaboration with

Patricia Fair (South Carolina Aquarium & MUSC)


We are looking for motivated students interested in developing their statistical modelling skills

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Company / Organization

DTU Aqua


David Lusseau




Supervisor info

MSc in Aquatic Science and Technology


David Lusseau

ECTS credits

30 - 35


MSc thesis

Technical University of Denmark

For almost two centuries DTU, Technical University of Denmark, has been dedicated to fulfilling the vision of H.C. Ørsted – the father of electromagnetism – who founded the university in 1829 to develop and create value using the natural sciences and the technical sciences to benefit society.

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