Study: Feeding wild dolphins bad for species

- If you spot a dolphin in the wild, scientists say you should leave it alone - and never offer it food.

A new study says dolphins are being injured after taking nibbles, even from food accidentally left behind by humans.

The shadows following people fishing along Sarasota Bay are actually dolphins trolling fishermen, and they're just waiting for the right opportunity to grab some leftover bait.

"They know where to be, it seems like. They know where everybody is throwing the bait away," said John Widmann.

Widmann said he used to be part of the problem, but not anymore.

"I was just figuring we were feeding them and it was happy. Wouldn't you be if somebody was throwing you hamburgers for yourself?" he asked.

Now, he knows better, after a new study shows how feeding dolphins can cause them harm. Researchers from Mote Marine Laboratory and the Chicago Zoological Society studied more than a thousand bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay. They found 190 of them were "conditioned" from accepting food, 84 of which had injuries.

"No matter how they got food, it meant they had an increased chance of being injured from boat strikes, or entanglements or ingesting of fishing gear or hooking," said Scientists Katie McHugh from the Chicago Zoological Society.

Scientists say, little things like dumping your bait bucket can teach dolphins bad habits. Instead, if you see dolphins in your area, reel in your line or wait for them to pass before casting out. If all else fails, change your fishing spot. 

"Once they start to learn this, then others will learn the same behavior from them and it will multiply the problem rapidly," said McHugh.

There's just one simple rule to keep in mind while on the water: If you see a dolphin, don't feed it. Scientists say this rule can be applied to any marine animals. They've seen birds and other sea creatures become conditioned by people feeding them.

It's advice fisherman John Widmann takes to heart.

"I'll dispose of it properly. Get rid of it somewhere else, freeze it, save it for later," he said.

If you are concerned dolphins are being mistreated in a specific location or by a specific person, even by feeding, you may report feeding or harassment to NOAA Fisheries Southeast Enforcement Division by calling 1-800-853-1964.

You may also report injured, entangled and stranded marine mammals and sea turtles. In Sarasota and Manatee counties, call Mote's Stranding Investigations Program at 941-988-0212.

Anywhere in Florida: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 1-888-404-FWCC (3922)

Anywhere else in the U.S., call the NMFS Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 1-877-WHALE-HELP (1-877-942-5343) or use the smartphone app Dolphin & Whale 911.

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