Human interactions (HI) with wild dolphins continue to be a problem throughout the Southeast USA, including Sarasota Bay.
Close encounters between bottlenose dolphins and boats or fishing gear have the potential to injure or kill dolphins.
In addition, situations where dolphins are intentionally or accidentally fed by humans can contribute to unnatural foraging behaviors such as begging, scavenging, and depredation (when dolphins take and feed on bait or catch from fishing gear) that put dolphins in harm’s way.
The SDRP works to study and mitigate human interactions with wild dolphins in a variety of ways, including conducting research in the long-term “natural laboratory” of Sarasota Bay to inform management efforts throughout the region, participating in outreach efforts intended to reach a wide audience (by distributing “Dolphin Friendly Fishing and Viewing Tips” cards and the “Don’t Feed Wild Dolphins” PSA), and creating new educational videos highlighting the impacts of HI through stories of real Sarasota Bay resident animals (available at www.sarasotadolphin.org and on our YouTube channel).
As a part of these efforts, we are wrapping up a pilot study funded by the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium to use long-term archives in concert with new data on human interactions collected in Sarasota Bay to determine the primary factors contributing to HI in our study area. With collaborators Lars Bejder and David Lusseau, we expect to complete analyses over the next few months exploring spatial, temporal, and social contributions to the persistence and spread of unnatural foraging behaviors within the Sarasota Bay community. This research is critical to improving the lives of dolphins in Sarasota Bay and elsewhere by informing future outreach, research, and management efforts.
Long-term records indicate that overall HI rates in Sarasota Bay are increasing, and that ~35% of our resident animals either were observed engaging in behaviors of concern or suffered from HI-related injuries during 1993-2013. Although HI observations in Sarasota Bay remain relatively infrequent as compared to other HI hotspots in the Southeast USA, we continue to identify new individuals incorporating unnatural behaviors into their repertoires and succumbing to boat or fishing gear-related injuries each year. For example, in June 2014 the Sarasota Bay community yet again lost a long-time resident animal, 58-yr-old Squiggy (FB35), from ingestion of fishing gear. In late 2012, Squiggy lost a daughter to fishing gear ingestion, and Squiggy’s 6-month-old grand-calf died soon thereafter because of the loss of her mother. Necropsy of another well-known resident dolphin (juvenile female 1495) revealed that she had ingested fishing gear prior to her death in late 2013.
In addition, we have also recently documented increasing problems with harassment of resident dolphins in our study area, and SDRP staff members have participated in multiple disentanglement operations in Florida over the past year. These trends point to the need for continued focus on reducing potentially dangerous behaviors by both dolphins and humans, and the SDRP remains committed to these efforts in our research and outreach endeavors.
This article was published on page 5-6 in the January 2014 issue of Nicks n Notches.