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Dolphins in Trouble. Where is NOAA?

Rescuing the animals isn’t always the safest or the best option for the animal

In the past few days we have had two reported incidents involving dolphins along the East Coast of the United States, one involving a lone common dolphin in the Gowanas Canal in New York and another involving several bottlenose dolphins in New Jersey’s Navesink River.

Situations like these are common occurrences in coastal waters as animals follow prey into rivers to feed or ill or injured animals come close to shore where the public sees them. Common dolphins are present from Cape Hatteras to Georges Bank year around with frequent sightings January through May. Bottlenose dolphin are distributed along the coast from Long Island, New York to the Florida Keys but do venture further north in summer months.

Over the past few days, we have heard from a number of concerned citizens asking us to respond and save the animals in New York and New Jersey. In these situations, we try to work closely with local resource management agencies and our stranding and disentanglement network partners to monitor the animals’ condition and determine the most appropriate course of action. While no one wants to see an animal in trouble, we have to recognize that sometimes rescuing the animals isn’t always feasible and in some cases can even pose a greater risk to the animals and the people trying to rescue them. 

Common dolphin (Photo Credit: Timothy P. White (CUNY)

"Our first priority is to both protect the animals that we are trying to help and the dedicated team of trained stranding and disentanglement responders who are on the ground trying to the save them," said John Bullard, regional administrator, NOAA Fisheries."Often the best course of action to take is the least invasive to minimize stress on the animals which can cause death. This involves watching the animal to see if it leaves on its own."

 

The common dolphin in Gowanas Canal was in very shallow, polluted, muddy water. It was not safe for responders from our stranding and disentanglement network, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, to operate boats around the animal to assess its condition or to approach the animal on foot from land. Ultimately, the animal died. Common dolphins are typically found offshore and in large social groups. When single animals come inshore, it may be an indicator that the animal is sick or otherwise injured. These cases often end in natural mortality or the animals being humanely euthanized. For more on this, please visit the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation facebook page

 

In the second situation, a group of bottlenose dolphins was seen in the Navesink River, a natural habitat for these animals. Fishermen reported seeing bait fish in the water, so it is likely the dolphins were following prey. While the weather has certainly been cold and understandably people are concerned about the dolphins, coastal bottlenose dolphins can tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions (e.g., salinity and temperature fluctuations) as long as they are in good body condition, have sufficient food, and are not otherwise ill or injured. The river has frozen in the area where the dolphins were. We have lost sight of them, which means they either left or may have died. Our strategy was to standby and see if the animals would leave on there own because previous attempts to move the bottlenose dolphins in the Shrewsbury/Navesink in 1993 and 2000 were not successful and the animals ultimately did not survive. Intervening carries the same, if not a higher, risk of mortalities.

 

After consulting with recognized experts, we have concluded that in most cases the dolphins’ best chance for survival lies with allowing these wild animals to use the very instincts and behaviors that also ensure the long-term health and survival of their larger population. They may fail, but that too is a common and important pattern in nature.