Fishing gear entanglements, harassment, strandings and feedings are costing Gulf region dolphins their lives. Digital Journal spoke with NOAA Fisheries Service and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, to find out more.
Towards the end of June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement, released a news brief asking for information on a bottlenose dolphin that had been stabbed in the head with a screwdriver somewhere around the Florida-Alabama border in Perdido Bay.
The animal was last seen alive late in the afternoon of June 21, and was reported dead the following afternoon just west of Dupont Point, Alabama. This dolphin is just one of many that are facing multiple threats in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Dolphins in the Gulf region are being assaulted with so many challenges," said Courtney Vail, the Campaigns Director for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, "including recovery from the oil spill, an ongoing unusual mortality event (UME) that has resulted in hundreds of deaths and was declared months before the Deepwater Horizon blowout, and interactions with both recreational and commercial fisheries."
The UME – launched under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, was declared for cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in the northern Gulf of Mexico (Texas/Louisiana border through Franklin County, FL), from February 2010 through the present by the NOAA Fisheries Service.
According to preliminary data from NOAA Fisheries, as of July 15, 2012, there have been 754 Cetacean strandings in the Northern Gulf of Mexico (5% stranded alive and 95% stranded dead). The numbers are higher than historic levels says NOAA, who describe the magnitude of the strandings as "unprecedented."
In 2011, NOAA marine mammal biologists along with local, state, federal and other research partners also began the Bataria Bay dolphin study as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) for studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill. After physically examining 32 live bottlenose dolphins, it was determined that many of them were underweight, anemic, had low blood sugar levels and symptoms of liver or lung disease. Almost half of them had reduced immune function due to lowered levels of hormones that control stress.
But impacts to dolphins are also being caused by an adoring public who attempt to befriend the marine mammals. In early May, a Slidell, Louisiana teen, became the third person bitten in a week by a solitary dolphin who it is believed, sought shelter in a nearby cove following Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge.
Adam Einck, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, told The St. Tammany News, "we’ve been getting reports of people swimming with (the dolphin) and feeding it." This act alone creates a huge problem that perpetuates a never-ending vicious circle for the dolphins suggests Stacey Horstman, Bottlenose Dolphin Conservation Coordinator with NOAA Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, FL.
Horstman told Digital Journal that "throughout the Gulf of Mexico and in certain hot spots like Panama City FL, Orange Beach AL and Corpus Christi, TX, we have extreme cases of dolphins being harrassed and illegal feeding occurring." And "these can have real consequences in terms of serious injury and death," Horstman said.
Dolphins, Horstman explained, are "suffering from increased boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear." But worse for the dolphin, the NOAA Coordinator said, "is when a dolphin is fed, they get used to people and lose their natural wariness. So they approach people and beg for food."
This loss of fear and the expectation of being fed Horstman explained, means that dolphins are approaching commercial and recreational fishermen and are "taking the bait and catch from their fishing gear." This not only leads to "increased boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear," she added, but fed up fishermen taking retaliatory measures.
WDCS's Courtney Vail, explained to Digital Journal that for the dolphin with a screwdriver rammed into his head, this was an "additional level of harassment and targeted vandalism" that "may either be a random act of violence, or symptomatic of other issues." Vail suggested the act could be "a reflection of the stress fishermen in the area may be feeling in dealing with depredation by dolphins of their bait or catch, which we know is a problem," she added, "especially in the Florida panhandle area." Of course, "in the absence of specific details surrounding the incident" Vail added, "it is just speculation," but she "hopes that someone is brought to justice, because it truly is a blatant act of cruelty."
Horstman said that NOAA Fisheries also receives reports of dolphins being shot, all of which she says "points to these retaliatory measures that we're seeing." While the Fisheries Service doesn't know "what caused the dolphin to have a screwdriver in its head," retaliation is a "very real possibility" Horstman said, and "once a dolphin is fed and becomes used to people," she added, "they start to engage in these different behaviors that have unfortunate consequences."
NOAA Fisheries has investigated such cases before. "In 2006," the Coordinator explained, "there were two Department of Justice Investigations that worked with our NOAA Office of Law Enforcement on two cases in the Northern Gulf. One was in Orange Beach AL," Horstman said, "and one was in Panama City, FL. They were both charter boat Captains that were shooting at dolphins or a dolphin in particular, to keep them away from their fishing catch," she said.
Another case in 2009, investigated a commercial fisherman throwing pipe bombs at dolphins. In March of the same year, a federal judge sentenced Alvy Key of Panama City, FL, to two years in prison, three years of supervised probation, and $125 special assessment for attempting to harm bottlenose dolphins with pipe bombs – a blatant violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
As for the solitary Slidell dolphin Horstman said, he is still there although "we haven't had any reports of more bites or anything else going on." Horstman recently conducted outreach there on June 24 and 25, and while there are still "some interactions going on," she hopes "they will decrease with the amount of outreach we are conducting and as people are becoming more aware of the situation."
When asked if she thought the dolphin would move on, Horstman responded:
It's hard to really know, but what we're trying to educate people to, is that in leaving him alone, it not only keeps them safe but keeps the dolphin safe and maybe he'll start eventually expanding his home range a little bit more. For other dolphins in similar cases worldwide, some have moved on or have expanded and come back at different times. It's really hard to fix, but this is the best option to help him and help people.
According to the paper, "Managing Human Interactions with Solitary Dolphins" [Wilke, Bossley and Doak; Aquatic Mammals 2005], "humans view dolphins as very charismatic," particularly solitary dolphins. A lone dolphin Wilke said, "usually results in large numbers of people being attracted to the area with many wanting to swim with and to touch the animal." A report by Marine Connection's Dr. Lissa Goodwin and Margaux Dodds called "Lone Rangers," also says that the greatest species of solitary dolphins represented worldwide, is the popular and easily recognizable, bottlenose.
But why do people assume all wild dolphins are friendly?
Horstman said it is "things that people see, whether it be TV or movies or advertisements, that just creates the perception that dolphins are friendly and they're not going to hurt you despite the fact that they're wild," she explained. "It creates some major hurdles for us, because we try to convey that dolphins are no different from a bear, or an alligator, or lions," Horstman added. However, dolphins "can be very aggressive," she says, "not intentionally, but there are many places where dolphins are known to bite people from their being fed or teased and they can mistake a hand for food."
Also of note, the harassment of dolphins is illegal under the MMPA. "Feeding or even attempting to feed a wild marine mammal is illegal" Horstman said. "Anything that is going to change their natural behaviors, or has the potential to injure them would be illegal. For instance," she added, "if you jumped out of your boat because you saw a dolphin and wanted to swim with it, and that act of jumping in the water prevented a calf from nursing with its mother, that would be harassment."
NOAA Fisheries therefore urges anyone planning on viewing wild dolphins, to always follow their "Code of Conduct." and be SMART around the wild marine mammals.
As for the dolphin with the screwdriver stuck in his head, WDCS has stepped in and offered a $3500 reward for information leading to the identification, arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the illegal and cruel acts that led to the death of the protected bottlenose dolphin in Perdido Bay.
"NOAA Fisheries" Horstman said, "is trying to get the message out there as widely as we can for any tips, any leads, any photos or even video of when the dolphin was seen swimming with the screwdriver in its head. Any information is really crucial at this point in time," she added.
People with information for NOAA Fisheries can call their Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964 or the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement in Niceville, FL at (850)729-8628, and speak directly to an officer. Individuals may also leave anonymous tips or identify themselves when providing their reports on the incident.
With recreational and commercial fisheries activity, "the impacts of feeding and harassment," plus the domino effect" from "boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear" Horstman said, protecting dolphins in the Gulf region, is "a big challenge."
The following video is courtesy of Don't Feed the Wild Dolphins.