Dolphins, with their acrobatic antics, are natural favorites of boaters, tourists and anyone who lives, works or enjoys Florida’s waterways. So when they began washing up on our shores this summer — along with thousands of dead fish, and even manatees — it sparked a passionate wave of outrage over red tide.

Since July, almost 80 dolphins have been found stranded on Gulf beaches from Hillsborough County down to Collier County. All of those were suffering respiratory problems caused by red tide.

“It was bad enough that we categorized it as an Unusual Mortality Event,” said Dr. Erin Leone, a biostatistician with the Fish and Wildlife Institute, which operates with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association.

Leone said the dolphin deaths are the most seen in Gulf waters since another UME in 2006 when red tide was responsible for 190 dolphin deaths.

“This particular bloom was so large and lasted so long,” she said of this summer’s outbreak. “The hardest hit areas were Charlotte, Lee and Sarasota counties.”

Leone said of all the stranded dolphins found, NOAA was able to rescue only two — with one taken to Mote Marine and the other to Sea World in Orlando. Their tests came back negative for red tide poisoning.

The dolphins eat fish infected with the red tide and they can also inhale it — like humans. It spreads into their organs and causes mortality.

July, August and September saw the highest number of dolphin deaths — with 41 in August the worst month in the current outbreak.

NOAA has formed a team of scientists to study the red tide and its impact on marine life. They have been collecting data since summer while continuing to collect water samples and test for red tide.

NOAA officials put out a list of what to do, and what not to do, if you encounter a dolphin in distress:

• Don’t push the animal back out to sea. Stranded marine mammals may be sick or injured. Returning them to the sea delays examination and treatment and can result in the animal’s health worsening.

• If the animal returns to the water on its own, don’t attempt to interact with it.

• Do put human safety above animal safety. If conditions are dangerous, do not attempt to approach the animal.

• Do stay with the animal until rescuers arrive, but use caution. Marine animals can be dangerous and can carry disease. Keep a safe distance from the head and tail. Do not touch the animal or inhale its expired air.

• If the animal is alive, do keep its skin moist and cool by splashing water on it. Use wet towels to keep it moist and prevent sunburn.

• If the animal is alive, don’t cover or obstruct its blowhole. Try to keep sand and water away from the blowhole.

• Do keep crowds and noise levels down to avoid stress on the animal.

• Do report all dead marine animals, even if they have decomposed, to 877-942-5343.

• Don’t collect any parts (tissue, teeth, bones) from dead animals. They are covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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