TAMPA — An unprecedented number of bottlenose dolphins have died this year after gobbling baited hooks or lures or becoming entangled with fishing line. So far, encounters with recreational fishing gear killed 13 dolphins around the state this year, compared with four during all of 2005. Scientists worry it could grow worse.
“For a dolphin to put its head out of the water like Flipper is not a natural behavior,” said Stacey Carlson, dolphin conservation coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg. “We’re not sure of the cause of this.” Editors note - Gee ya think it might have something to do with the red tide that recently moved into the bay?
The mammals may be associating anglers with a free meal. Or they may be more desperate for food after red tide depleted stocks of their normal prey. Scientists have observed dolphins snatching baited hooks and hooked fish in waters around the Skyway Pier. They’ve discovered lures in dead dolphins on the state’s west and east coasts.
Wild dolphins don’t naturally steal bait from a hook, Carlson said.
Most of the dolphin deaths have been concentrated in Sarasota Bay and the Indian River Lagoon on the state’s east coast. Two were near Clearwater, the closest any dead dolphins were found to Tampa Bay. In the Sarasota area, three adult dolphins died with hooks or lures lodged between their lungs and blowholes. A calf died when fishing line wrapped around its tail, nearly severing it. A treble-hooked fishing lure in a fifth dolphin’s mouth may have contributed to its death, said Randall Wells, director of the Center for Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.
The number of deaths amounts to about 3 percent of the dolphins that permanently live in and near Sarasota Bay. Add that to the normal death rate of about 5 percent a year and the population can’t support the loss.
Carlson and other researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spent more than 100 hours this year observing and interviewing anglers at the southern Skyway Pier.
They saw dolphins eating squid, shrimp, live and cut bait from hooks and sometimes eating a hooked fish. Some managed to eat the fish without getting hooked.
They also saw people feeding dolphins intentionally, which is illegal, and unintentionally by dumping leftover bait into the water.