Dolphins and other coastal wildlife face increasing threats from interactions with boating, fishing, and wildlife viewing activities. We know that close encounters with boats or fishing gear can injure or kill dolphins, and repeated human disturbance disrupts key natural behaviors including feeding, nursing, or resting. Exposure to human sources of food worsens the problem by encouraging risky abnormal 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.
In Sarasota Bay, more than 40% of resident dolphins have exhibited behaviors of concern and ~20% have suffered from human-related injuries such as boat strikes and entanglements. Many more individuals face 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.
With support from the Disney Conservation Fund, we have spent much of the past year focused on expanding and improving our outreach activities to better engage key community stakeholders in dolphin conservation to reduce HI. These efforts have targeted local user groups who interact with dolphins in different ways (for example, anglers, recreational boaters, boat rental companies, ecotour operators) but whose activities can put dolphins at risk. We have provided informal town-hall style presentations tailored to the issues most relevant to each group, including information on best practices for boating and fishing near wildlife, reducing marine debris to prevent entanglement, and reporting injured animals to facilitate effective intervention. We have also attended stakeholder events to provide informal educational opportunities and distributed relevant outreach materials through a number of new venues, including partnering with Freedom Boat Club to provide dolphin conservation information to their members in Southwest Florida via their monthly e-newsletter. We have built on a partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory’s High School Alumni Program to engage in student-led weekend monitoring of HI hotspots and marine debris clean-up activities. We also created a ‘virtual’ marine debris clean-up team using the Marine Debris Tracker app, and the team has removed more than 9,100 pieces of trash and discarded fishing gear from our local shorelines and waterways this year!
Through these efforts, we have reached thousands of people with whom we otherwise would not have had the opportunity to interact, and we think this approach shows promise for reducing negative human-dolphin interactions in our region. For example, in the two months after our first major ecotour operator town-hall, we observed fewer instances of dolphin harassment near a tourism hotspot within our study area, and we also had more direct engagement with captains who observed injured or abnormal dolphins and reported them to the stranding network. In addition, although still observed infrequently, we did not see an increase in dolphin unnatural foraging interactions with anglers after several months of red tide disturbance in our study area in contrast to what we have seen previously. We still have a long way to go towards fully addressing human-related risks to local dolphins, but we are hopeful that we are on the right track.
This article appeared on page 6 of the 2018 SDRP Annual Report, Nicks n Notches.