In just over two months since the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP) in Chicago, Ill., staff led efforts to rescue a dolphin calf with a life-threatening fishing line entanglement in Sarasota Bay, Fla., the need to assist another calf occurred again. This time, it was near Marco Island, about two and a half hours drive south of Sarasota. A 1½-year-old male dolphin, Fergie, had been observed with fishing line cutting deeply into the leading edge of his tail flukes.

Deemed a life-threatening situation by authorities from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service, SDRP staff once again led a team of nearly 50 personnel from multiple Stranding Network organizations throughout Florida. Collaborating organizations included the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Marine Mammal Pathobiology Lab, FWC Southwest Field Lab, Mote Marine Laboratory’s Stranding Investigations Program (MML), Clearwater Marine Aquarium, University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, SeaWorld Orlando, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and Collier County Sheriff’s Office.

hook on tail with hands

Once the calf was located, the team waited about two and half hours for him and his mother, Skipper, to swim towards shallower waters to safely attempt the rescue. The intervention, which lasted under a half hour, went well—the line was removed from Fergie’s flukes, his wounds were cleaned, and an injection of a long-lasting antibiotic was administered. In 2014, an SDRP-led team rescued Skipper from her own entanglement.  

Sadly, this maternal lineage has an even wider history of entanglement than just mom and calf. Skipper’s brother Seymour was rescued from a life-threatening entanglement in fishing gear in 2012. Skipper’s niece, Arial, was reportedly entangled with fishing line around its dorsal fin in January 2019. Fortunately, however, she shed the gear on her own just before the arrival of a rescue team from SDRP and FWC.

fishing line removed

In a 2021 article, “Staying Alive: Long-Term Success of Bottlenose Dolphin Interventions in Southwest Florida,” published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science, SDRP staff and other experts reported that interventions to save individual dolphins with life-threatening injuries caused by humans provide benefits not only to the welfare of those animals but also to the stability and growth potential of their local populations.

“We are extremely happy with the outcome of this situation, but we sure wish that we didn’t have to take these measures at all,” said Dr. Randy Wells, vice president of marine mammal conservation for the Chicago Zoological Society and director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program. “Entanglements and other human-induced injuries to dolphins can be prevented. Getting fishing gear out of the water when dolphins are nearby, as well as securing gear considered trash such that it can’t get into the environment, can eliminate this risk to dolphins.”

The calf’s rescue was conducted under NOAA permit 24359. The public can report all stranded, injured, and entangled marine mammals to the Marine Mammal Stranding Network 24-hour hotline at 877-WHALEHELP (942-5343).

Photos Credit: © Brookfield Zoo

Edited by Jessica Sansarran, the communications coordinator at AZA.

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