Human population and recreational use within coastal ecosystems is rising, and dolphins and other wildlife face increasing problems due to frequent interactions with boating, fishing, and wildlife viewing activities within their ranges. Close encounters with boats or fishing gear can injure or kill dolphins, and repeated disturbance from human activities disrupts critical natural behaviors including feeding, nursing, or resting. In addition, intentional or accidental feeding by people contributes to risky unnatural behaviors such as begging, scavenging, and taking bait or catch directly from active fishing gear, which put dolphins and their dependent young in harm’s way.
As of 2016, more than 40% of resident Sarasota Bay dolphins have been observed engaging in behaviors of concern and ~20% have suffered from human-related injuries such as boat strikes and entanglements or hookings. Many more individuals have faced frequent harassment from recreational boaters and tour operators. To improve this situation, the SDRP works to understand and alleviate adverse human interactions (HI) by conducting research in the long-term “natural laboratory” of Sarasota Bay, including monitoring HI trends and testing mitigation techniques, providing rescue and post-release monitoring support for injured animals, and participating in education and outreach efforts intended to reach a wide audience.
We recently completed a study funded by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium which used long-term archives alongside new data on human interactions and prey availability to determine the primary factors contributing to the spread and persistence of unnatural foraging behaviors in Sarasota Bay, and connections between risky behaviors and human-related injuries. This research is crucial to effective outreach and management efforts, and several publications from the work are forthcoming.
Fortunately, HI observations in Sarasota Bay remain less frequent as compared to major hotspots in the southeastern USA. However, with new individuals incorporating unnatural behaviors into their repertoires and suffering from boat or fishing gear-related injuries each year, we are committed to a sustained focus on reducing potentially dangerous behaviors by both dolphins and humans. To this end, and with support from the Disney Conservation Fund, we are developing a solution-focused community conservation program aimed at engaging local user groups whose activities can put dolphins at risk. Through these new programs, stakeholders will learn best practices for boating and fishing near wildlife, reducing marine debris to reduce entanglement, and reporting injured animals to facilitate intervention. Stay tuned for ways in which you can join us in these efforts!
This article appeared on pages 5-6 of the 2017 SDRP Annual Report, Nicks n Notches.