The bottlenose dolphin is the most beloved animal in Florida, but when he invites himself on a serious fishing trip, the comments expressed are far from affectionate.
It’s illegal to feed dolphin. Punishable by up to a $100,000 in fines and up to a year in jail. Recently a Jacksonville man was fined $250 for feeding a dolphin. It’s also illegal to keep undersized or out of season game fish, but sometimes obeying one law, means breaking the other.
You’ve caught an undersized snook. You love snook. It’s unlawful to keep him and there’s a heavy fine involved. You want to protect the species regardless. You’re about to release it while stressing it as little as possible. You lean over to remove the hook, keeping him in the water to reduce stress. Then you spot a grinning dolphin staring at your catch. What to do?
You decide to net the snook and quickly remove the hook, you release him on the opposite side of the boat. The tired fish swims away. Bam, Flipper shoots under your hull. There’s a big swirl where the snook should be. The dolphin pokes his nose above the surface with your catch between his jaws. A treasured snook is gone…and have you broken the law?
Some nuisance dolphin develop their bad habits on their own, but some are taught by humans. Don’t feed the dolphins. There are reasons why it’s illegal.
A wild dolphin named Beggar lived near Sarasota for twenty years. He was famous for begging food from boaters and occasionally biting one. He died in September of 2012. An autopsy revealed he was in bad physical shape for a time before his death. They theorize his death was caused by the hot dogs, bait squid, and other non-dolphin foods served to him by humans. He also had injuries inflicted by boats.
Another possibility is that due to some handicap, Beggar resorted to an atypical feeding method. They believe his behaviors taught other dolphins to do the same. I know of one dolphin who displayed the same behavior near the Sanibel causeway. He would lay his nose right up to our boat even though we were not feeding him, at least not directly. Any trout we released he would chase down, then move away making it more likely we would catch another. Most nuisance dolphin aren’t as courteous.
Dolphin often stalk a boat they expect will catch and release fish. A power boat can usually plane away leaving it’s stalker behind as well as a hot fishing spot. Most paddle craft don’t go that fast. They have to either stop fishing for a time or paddle over an area too shallow for the dolphin to follow. Dolphin will sometimes shadow the boat from deeper water when possible.
The best choice
You’ve caught an out of season or undersized game fish when you notice a dolphin eyeing you. There’s no good choice. The best thing you can do is first get the fish out of the water and out of sight while you remove the hook, then, as far from the dolphin as possible, quietly submerge the fish, release it, and wish it good luck. It’ll need it.