SARASOTA, Fla. (NewsNation Now) — It doesn’t take long being out on Sarasota Bay on the Florida Gulf before you are almost guaranteed to see dolphins.
Bottlenose dolphins have called the bay home for centuries.
The Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program just celebrated its 50th anniversary of studying the dolphins.
Dr. Randy Wells has been with the program since it started. Wells and his team know the 170 dolphins in the bay by name — and have cataloged each animal’s unique dorsal fin.
“The one thing that has remained the same for the dolphins is they don’t get to choose which challenges they face at any given time,” Wells said.
Wells says the challenges have been especially significant since the pandemic started.
Boat sales in Florida have surged because being on the water is a socially distant activity.
With more boaters — the bay has become increasingly crowded.
“Since March, we have seen a number of dolphins die in the area,” Wells said.
Volunteers with the program have also noticed the increase in boat traffic.
“Seeing more people out and there are more boats going fast as opposed to just the local fishermen who you see out regularly,” volunteer Martha Wells said.
Among the dolphins that have died include a dolphin named Bark who was found with a fishing line in his mouth. A calf died after his tail was entangled with fishing line.
Other dolphins have been injured by boat propellers.
“As people are out on the water, they should just be aware of what else is out there sharing the environment with them. Being alert to creatures that might be in their boat’s path is really important. If they are in shallow water it is really important because the creatures might not be able to dive down low below the boat,” Wells said.
Scientists also say increased noise caused by boats is a problem because the noise can impact dolphins’ ability to find food.
“The dolphins were here first. We enjoy doing things in their world, so I think we need to be considerate,” volunteer Martha Wells said.
Scientists say it is painful to see the dolphins who are injured.
“When you get to know these animals this well…when you have known them for decades and their subsequent generations over many, many years, it is hard to see things happen to them,” Dr. Wells said.
Dr. Wells says it is too soon to link an increase in dolphin deaths to the increased boating due to pandemic — but cause and effect research into the situation is ongoing.