Human interactions (HI) with wild dolphins are a problem of increasing conservation concern.
In 2011, we conducted a controlled experiment testing the effectiveness of law enforcement and educational outreach at reducing interactions at an HI hotspot near Sarasota Bay.
The project centered on a notorious begging bottlenose dolphin (“Beggar”) that has frequented a small portion of the Intracoastal Waterway for more than 20 years, along with occasional associates. “Beggar” is well-known in this area; he has continued to approach or be approached by boaters and be illegally provisioned by humans frequently (up to 2 boats/min and 6 provisioning events/hr), despite signs discouraging these activities and several past projects aimed at mitigating these interactions.
In order to provide a better understanding of human interactions under different mitigation strategies, we conducted 100 hours of observation during weekends from March to June 2011, collecting information on the dolphin’s behavior, boat traffic, and human interactions during four experimental phases: 1) Baseline (pre-mitigation), 2) Enforcement (a marked law enforcement boat patrolling the area), 3) Follow-up, and 4) Education (public distribution of educational cards at local waterfront businesses). During the entire project, we observed over 6,000 potentially interacting boats (up to 120 boats/hr), with boaters engaging in nearly 3,600 human interactions with “Beggar” (up to 70 interactions/hr). Of these interactions, 169 were illegal provisioning events, during which “Beggar” was fed at least 520 items ranging from fish, shrimp, and squid to human snack foods, beer, hot dogs, and fruit. In addition, we observed 121 boaters attempt to touch the dolphin, resulting in 9 confirmed bites by “Beggar”.
During our baseline experimental phase, we witnessed frequent provisioning and attempts to touch “Beggar,” resulting in confirmed bites on nearly every observation day. However, during four days of continuous law enforcement patrols, we found significant reductions in both provisioning rates and number of items fed to “Beggar,” as well as fewer attempts to touch the animal and no observed bites. In fact, provisioning dropped almost to zero after the first day of enforcement presence on the water. Four written warnings were issued during that first day, and over the course of the weekend nearly 70 boats were approached by uniformed enforcement agents who talked with boaters about Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) regulations and proper dolphin viewing behavior. Despite the short time period of this experimental enforcement phase, we also observed some improvements in the dolphin’s behavior coinciding with reductions in human provisioning, including increased natural foraging and fewer “dolphin-initiated” interactions, indicating that at least some long-term HI animals have the capacity to display more natural behavior when not rewarded for begging. In our follow-up observations post-enforcement, we found no evidence that people continued to comply with the MMPA for any substantial “halo” period after enforcement activities had ceased.
During the educational experimental phase, we distributed 6,250 “Dolphin-friendly fishing and viewing tips” cards to local water-oriented businesses. We found many businesses to be very receptive and cooperative in our efforts to educate boaters, and several boat rental companies were particularly proactive in helping to educate their renters. Unfortunately, to date, we have found no substantial reduction in provisioning rates following educational card distribution, and observed rates of human interactions were similar to the baseline period.
While we are still double checking and analyzing the copious data collected during this project, indications are that provisioning at the “Beggar” hotspot primarily involved local boaters who probably already knew their behavior was illegal. Only 10% of provisioning events observed during the course of the project involved people on rental boats, and provisioning was almost nonexistent with an enforcement presence in the area. Thus, we recommend that in the future, enforcement action should be combined with publicity for greater effect. NOAA personnel were on the water with us both in March and June and have already pursued at least two cases of MMPA violations from incidents that they witnessed. We will also be sharing video and photo documentation of violations observed during the course of this project with NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. While we did not find immediate benefits of educational card distribution, longer term education and outreach projects focused on local boat owners may prove fruitful.
Support for this project came from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. We would especially like to acknowledge our partners at NOAA, including Stacey Horstman, Jessica Powell, Laura Engleby, and Office of Law Enforcement agents Rick Hawkins and Rich Chesler who made this project possible. Many thanks go to Gene Stover, who distributed our educational cards to local businesses. We are also indebted to our interns, local volunteers, and coworkers who spent many weekends helping with the intense field effort that this project required. In particular, volunteers Cathy Marine, Norma Pennington, and Scott Pasawicz provided many hours to the project, and Krystan Wilkinson and Marcela Salazar, continued to assist with field work, data entry, and cross-validation well past the official end dates of their internships.