national marine fisheries service

kuzupekos  asked:

What would be a situation where an animal (specifically a dolphin, I'm trying to get all the nuances of the captivity debate) has been successfully rehabilitated but can't go back to the wild?

Good question! 

I asked someone who works with stranded marine mammals because I wanted to make sure that I didn’t get it wrong (and because it’s hard to find official documents regarding it that aren’t low-resolution scans). Their input is in quotes, my commentary is not. 

First off, it’s important to note that the rehabilitators don’t get to decide if the animal is unreleasable - all stranded marine mammals are under the jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a subset of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. They also are the ones who enforce the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is the federal law (supposedly) prevents people from approaching, touching, swimming with and/or generally bothering marine mammals. So no matter where in the country an animal is, or what facility it is cared for at, the scientists with NMFS make the call about if it is releasable. 

Factors that can make an animal unreleasable include age, injuries or physical conditions that prevent everyday function, chronic but manageable conditions, re-stranding, or human intervention/interference. 

Age: “A cetacean determined to be under two years of age that strands without its mother (or the mother subsequently dies in rehab) will almost never be considered for release because they are still dependent calves.”

Most dolphins have a really strong bond with their mothers for a least the first two years of life, and still aren’t “adults” for another number of years. Unassisted babies in social species don’t survive in the wild very well, no matter what taxa. 

Injury or Impairment: “Animals with significant hearing loss, blindness, injuries that prevent or greatly impede locomotion, or animals found to be suffering from chronic but medically manageable conditions will not be released.” 

Some good examples in captivity currently are a rough-toothed dolphin with severe scoliosis, a number of deaf conspecifics, and Winter, the famous bottlenose dolphin who has a custom tail prosthetic to help her compensate for an injury sustained as a calf. 

Restranding: If an animal can’t survive well enough to need to be rescued more than once, it’s probably not going to get released another time.

Human involvement: “Places like Panama City Beach have a huge issue with people feeding dolphins and petting them from boats. Some of these “beggar dolphins” are known and recognizable. If one of these animals got hit by a boat and had to be brought in and it was a known and identifiable beggar dolphin, I don’t think he or she would go back out. Other dolphins in the area imitate their behavior and add to the danger.”

These are all assessed independently and in combination with each other, so a single issue may not be the sole reason for an animal being deemed unreleasable. For instance: 

“Panama, an old female dolphin who lived with Winter at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, stranded in Panama City Beach very underweight and ill. She was later found to be deaf, but she was also a suspected beggar dolphin and that alone may have been enough to have her declared non-releasable even if she wasn’t deaf. She may actually have been begging because she was deaf.”

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Throwback: Bart the Gray Whale’s Disentanglement:

Capt. Dave and his wife were headed to dinner with friends one evening in March 2012, when they received a call from one of their vessels that a Gray Whale with a huge amount of gillnet wrapped around its tail flukes had been spotted.  They quickly abandoned their plans and headed to Dana Point Harbor where they met up with volunteer members of Capt. Dave’s crew, Tom Southern, Mark Tyson and Steve Plantz. They embarked on one of their smaller whale watching boats to see the entangled whale and attempt to help it before it got dark.   

After getting permission from National Marine Fisheries Service they quickly attached a buoy with a strobe light to the whale in the hopes they might be able to stay with the whale through the night and begin the disentanglement process in the morning. Plans went temporarily awry around 9 PM when the whale somehow managed to break free of the buoy and light and the crew members were now unable to follow the whale in the dark.     

They made the decision to try the impossible and attempt to attach another buoy on the whale in the dark. The engines were shut off and crew listened for the whale with only a small flashlight for lighting. In what Capt. Dave called their ‘first miracle’, they were able to relocate the whale and re-attach the buoy after two hours. Knowing that the next day would be a very long one, Gisele Anderson placed a call to another team member, Peter Bartholomew, and asked if he would 'babysit a whale through the night’ so the “ disentanglement  team” could come back and get some rest before the strenuous day that was ahead. Bartholomew readily agreed, rallied two other volunteers (Hank Davis and Gary Weiberg) and headed out to sea to truly 'whale watch’ throughout the cold night until daylight the next day. Early the next morning, the original team from Capt. Dave’s  Dolphin and Whale Safari, assembled and were joined by Dana Friedman and Scott Davis from the Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC), and Capt. Dave’s friends Barry Curtis and Mike Johnson. Curtis and Friedman provided their Rigid Bottom Inflatables for the procedures.   

Bartholomew’s team handed off the whale they had watched throughout the night and the disentanglement team decided to name the whale “Bart” to honor Bartholomew’s efforts. Working with specialized disentanglement equipment, Capt. Dave led the team through a dramatic effort that continued all day, until shortly before dark.  Anderson observed a vast array of dead marine life called “by-catch” caught in the estimated 50-feet of netting.  What happened next was nothing short of astonishing. The team wasn’t sure they would be able to finish the job with time running out before dark when one of the control lines snapped.  'Bart’ submerged, taking four huge buoys with him like a scene from 'Jaws’.  When he surfaced one minute later, the pull of the buoys had broken off the last of the partly severed ropes and netting and Bart was free.   'Bart’ went first to the second support vessel and swam close by and underneath it several times.  

After placing their face masks in the water and taking underwater photos, they were able to confirm that 'Bart’ was now free of nets.   Bart then went back to the first boat, and came close enough to be touched. He raised his head out of the water, and opened his mouth.   Team members all felt that this was his way of saying 'thank you’.   A sea lion, a leopard shark, two angel sharks, various crabs, fish and rays were all caught in the net. “This whale was towing an entire ecosystem behind it,” said Anderson, “Nearly a thousand dolphins and whales die in nets every day, and untold numbers of other marine life die as well.  Seeing it right there, in front of me, only made me want to get the word even more.”  

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Think wild-caught cetaceans can’t be released back into the wild after living in captivity? Think again!

June 17, 1980, off Gulfport, Miss., two young dolphins – Joe and Rosie, were captured for research studies headed by controversial neuroscientist, Dr. John Lilly. Lilly had promised that once his research was concluded, he would release the dolphins into the care of  the Oceanic Research and Communication Alliance (ORCA). Ric O'Barry (Former Dolphin trainer turned activist) was hired for the project as a consultant and research coordinator.

The dolphins, who were 18-months-old when captured, were held at Marine World in Redwood City, Calif. until 1985. After six years in captivity, Lilly released Joe and Rosie into ORCA’s care and the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a permit to ship the animals to the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys.

Joe and Rosie were held in a floating 40-by-80-foot sea pen where Ric and the ORCA team worked together to rehabilitate them and wean them away from human dependence. The final decision on when to go, or if to go, was left entirely up to Joe and Rosie.

Over a period of time, Joe and Rosie were gradually trained to catch their own fish. Ric meanwhile, ignored them as much as possible. This took immense concentration on his part but he knew it was a necessary component of their “untraining.”

In his book – Behind the Dolphin Smile, Ric described how fish were naturally attracted to the pen where the dolphins were held. Joe and Rosie feasted on them day and night, he said. “I know this” he added, “because I was sleeping — or trying to sleep — right above them.”

One night a larger dolphin dropped by for a visit — exciting Joe and Rosie immensely. This would be the first of many wild dolphins that came calling.

While the original plan was to return Joe and Rosie to the Gulfport, Mississippi area, the team was concerned about ongoing dolphin captures in the area. They did not want to put Joe and Rosie at risk of being captured again.

So in June 1987, the dolphins were moved to Georgia to be prepped for release there. One month later, on July 13, the gate to their pen was dropped. It was all up to Joe and Rosie now.

They never hesitated. Joe and Rosie bolted for the creek and the interior of the island. They returned to their former pen just once, and then slapped their flukes and left for the open ocean.

Joe and Rosie were spotted on nine separate occasions after they chose to leave — swimming alongside other dolphins. Two of these sightings were reported by Captain Edwin Longwater, a local naturalist and guide. On his second sighting he noted two dolphins calves close to Rosie and another dolphin.

“We are not really setting them free. We are opening the gate and giving them a choice.” -Ric O’Barry.