Dolphin Dance

Dolphins—everyone loves them, and frequent sightings of the graceful mammals are a popular feature of life in Florida. We love them so much, we sometimes get into arguments about who loves them more. That seems to have been the case in a recent dispute between Marineland and the Matanzas Riverkeeper. The two organizations have taken opposite sides regarding a controversial “dolphin research” project that took place toward the end of August. The project’s first data collection cycle has already been completed, but its permit allows them to continue periodically over the next five years.

The project was conducted by the Georgia Aquarium Conservation Field Station, located on the premises of Marineland and established in 2008. GACFS is affiliated with the National Marine Fisheries Service Marine Mammal Stranding Network, which grants access to a variety of member organizations, their resources and personnel. These include Sea World, NOAA, National Ocean Service, National Marine Mammal Foundation, University of North Florida, University of Florida, and the law enforcement agencies of several counties.

According to its website, “They can find anything from ingestion or entanglement in marine debris, to a variety of infectious diseases that may play a role in many stranding cases. These necropsy results give researchers vital information about the health of the waterways and how it affects the animals that live there.” So far, GACFS has rescued a couple dozen entangled dolphins, and identified more than 350 more during nearly 200 photo surveys conducted since its founding in 2008. The organization has reached thousands of students in Northeast Florida. It does a lot of good, but not everyone is pleased with everything it’s doing, how it’s doing it, and why it’s doing it at all.

Jen Lomberk, the Matanzas Riverkeeper, was in front of the issue, raising concerns before the project commenced. “One of our main concerns at this point has been the lack of transparency and stakeholder involvement,” she says. “The reason that we have healthy dolphin populations here is because groups like ours have been fighting to protect our water quality here for decades. … The lack of notice to both the public and key stakeholders in the Matanzas River watershed is unacceptable.”

As part of the Health & Environmental Risk Assessment (HERA) study, researchers hoped to collect data on the dolphins that frequent the Matanzas River, which runs some 23 miles south from St. Augustine. “By utilizing unique nicks and notches in dolphins’ dorsal fins,” they write, “they are able to identify and catalog distinct individuals. These photo identification surveys help researchers keep detailed records of population numbers, movement patterns and overall health.”

“HERA is a multi-institution, multi-disciplinary research project that looks at the health of dolphins living in Southern U.S. waterways,” according to Paige Hale, communications manager of the Georgia Aquarium. “This year, HERA occurred over two weeks and we notified all required agencies, like NOAA, about the research in the Intracoastal Waterway prior to the research beginning, per our U.S. federal permit. We safely assessed dolphins in this area and collected vital data that will help us and other scientists look at how our ocean affects dolphin health and ultimately, human health.”

Dr. Gregory Bossart of GACFS (who co-authored two academic papers based on past HERA data, in 2017) told First Coast News two weeks ago that, of the 360 dolphins sampled during the last 15 years, half were unhealthy. He cites human activity as the primary culprit, leading to increased mercury levels and the spread of the disease morbillivirus, which has killed roughly 1,600 dolphins in just the last two years. The study aims to establish some baseline conditions, from which conservation groups can begin to formulate a plan of action to reduce the dangers the dolphins face.

Lomberk is skeptical. “The results of this project don’t justify the means,” she says. “This type of study [HERA] has been conducted for many years in other watersheds with dangerous water quality issues in order to collect information about those animals, but it has never been conducted here in the Matanzas, which is a healthy, thriving watershed. We wholeheartedly support scientific research in order to address issues associated with poor water quality in our state, but we have not heard any evidence about what the Matanzas HERA study is supposed to accomplish.”

Another issue is that the HERA study is seemingly unclear about exactly what its overall purpose is meant to be. “If there were some legitimate problem that this study was trying to address,” says Lomberk, “then there would obviously be a need to [do] this project, but this is a healthy dolphin population and, from the limited information that we have been presented, this appears to be data collection for the sake of date collection and that simply is not a good enough reason to harass our dolphins.”

Lomberk also expresses serious concerns about the methodology involved, particularly as it relates to the physical well-being of the dolphins themselves. “This process is extremely invasive to wild dolphins. It requires corralling, isolating and capturing wild dolphins, then taking a series of biological samples including putting a tube down the animal’s throat to suck gastric fluid out of its stomach, cutting out a chunk of flesh and blubber, taking blood, urine and fecal samples and forcibly extracting a tooth. This is obviously an ordeal that will subject these animals to stress and pain and increase their risk for injury or infection.”

Ultimately, this controversy exists as a microcosm of a broader, dysfunctional dynamic that exists among the various groups working to protect our natural environment and the aquatic life that lives within it. “We work hard to ensure that our watershed is safe and healthy enough to support a thriving ecosystem,” says Lomberk. “If something is taking place that will put stress on our wildlife, the community needs to be consulted.”