Saturday, August 23, 2008

Feeding dolphins is illegal and it hurts both dolphins and humans

Spotting a friendly dolphin out on the water is nice surprise on any boating trip - especially when it gets up close, seemingly begging for a treat. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a warning for boaters. Officials say feeding the wild animals is illegal and dangerous - for them and for you.

Out on the sparkling waters of Sarasota Bay, an audience was just waiting to spot a dolphin.

"You know, as soon as you approach Alvie Road Bridge, you're going to see probably at least five boats, people waiting for Beggar to come right up and approach," said Stacey Carlson of NOAA.
Beggar, a dolphin, seems to be quite the performer. Randy Wells, of the Mote Marine Laboratory, says Beggar has been doing the same tricks in the channel for 18 years.

"The typical repertoire for Beggar is to come up perpendicular to the path of a boat, let people see that he's there, then he'll come over and approach the boat very closely," said Wells.

With a flash of his distinctive smile, Wells says Beggar is hoping for one thing and one thing only - a snack.

"Chips, hot dogs, hamburgers, chips, pickles, sardines, oysters, canned fish of various kinds," Wells said.

But handouts are hurting Beggar and killing other dolphins up and down the coast.

"We deal with this problem from South Carolina, all the way down, up through the panhandle. I mean, wherever there's a dolphin, dolphins approach boats, people are going to feed them," said Tracy Dunn of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Officials at Mote Marine have been studying dolphins in Sarasota Bay since the 1970s. The biologists there have known Beggar his whole life.

Carlson says the number of dolphins getting entangled in recreational gear like fishing line and nets is increasing from seven in 2007 to nine already this year.

"Their natural wild behaviors change. They don't feed as often on their own, their forging strategies change," she said.

Instead of finding food on their own, they rely on humans for it. And because dolphins learn by association, the routine is passed on to others and then down to their young.

This isn't just dangerous for dolphins. Dolphins like Beggar are so habitually trained to expect food, many times people will reach over to pet them, and instead they instinctively bite.

Whether intentional or not, Beggar has ingested everything from cigarette butts to a diamond engagement ring.

"We got a call from a person he had bitten and removed the ring from, asking that we return it to them once we do the necropsy when the animal died from it," said Wells.

Fortunately, Beggar is still alive and swimming. But others haven't been that lucky.

That is why the feeding of dolphins is illegal. Some boaters just don't know it - others just don't care.
To prosecute, though, the National Marine Fishery Service has to see someone in the act.

"Just like speeding, when you see a boat, a marked law enforcement boat, people react differently. As soon as that boat is gone, people go back to their normal activity," said Dunn.

But undercover work is helping that and agents and biologists say education will help even more.
"We've all grown up thinking that dolphins are very special. They're human beings in wetsuits, basically. We know enough now to know that's not true," said Wells.

"No matter how readily the dolphin's coming up and approaching, looks like he's begging and needs food, you know? Do not feed them," added Carlson.

Even though Beggar's show can be quite convincing, he and all other dolphins will be better off finding food on their own.

Mote Marine Lab and NOAA add that frequent contact with people is making dolphins more comfortable approaching fishermen. As a result, they're getting tangled in lines and equipment.
When you're fishing, officials suggest recycling your bait and line by passing it along to another boat or throwing it away once you get ashore.

Best Fishing Practices for Avoiding Interactions with Wild Dolphins:

Never feed wild dolphins – it is against federal law and is harmful to the dolphins

Avoid tossing leftover bait to dolphins if they are nearby. Make use of leftover bait by taking it home to freeze for later or by giving it to your fishing neighbor

Check your gear and terminal tackle to make sure they are in good shape and will not break too easily, resulting in a lost fish with a hook that could be eaten by a dolphin

Avoid fishing in an area where dolphins are actively feeding – dolphins may mistake your bait or catch for food

Do not release caught fish in the presence of dolphins – this reinforces the association of recreational fishing activities with a food source. Anglers should try to release the fish as far from the dolphin and as quietly as possible.

Change fishing locations if dolphins are showing interest in your bait or catch.

Do not cast your line toward a dolphin.

Use corrodible hooks – any hook other than stainless steel.

Use circle hooks – it is believed that they reduce injuries to fish and dolphins.

Never try to reel in a dolphin that may be hooked – if a dolphin is hooked and the hook is set, cut the line as close to the dolphin as safely possible. If the hook is not set, put slack on the line and give the dolphin time to release itself.

Stay at least 50 yards away from wild dolphins while boating or using personal watercraft.

Stow used fishing line. Make sure to collect any broken or used fishing lines to discard in recycling bins (Please visit the Monofilament Recovery and Recycling Program Web site for a list of bin locations:

If a recycling bin is not available, please discard in a secure bin. It’s against Florida law to intentionally discard monofilament into area waters because such line can kill or injure marine mammals, birds and sea turtles.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"