Feeding dolphins puts population at risk of decline, study shows

July 9th, 2019 | | backpacker

Tourism operators could be putting dolphin populations at risk by allowing them to be fed by visitors to Western Australia, new research has found.

Key points:

  • A Murdoch University study has found feeding the dolphins could impact the survival of calves
  • One third of Bunbury calves from fed dolphins survive until three years old
  • Strict conditions are in place to protect the dolphins populations

Dolphins are a visitor drawcard in the state but a new study from Murdoch University, which looked at more than 60 dolphins around the Bunbury area, found dolphins which were not fed by the Bunbury Discovery Centre were two times more likely to give birth and had more success raising calves.

Lead researcher Valeria Senigaglia said just over one third of calves from food-dependent mothers in Bunbury survived to the weaning age of three years old. Around 75 per cent of the population is successfully weaned, if we only take the provisioning dolphins, this percentage drops down to 38 per cent, ” she said.

A hand feeding a dolphin in Bunbury from a boat.

PHOTO: Researchers think feeding dolphins makes them more reliant on humans for food. (Supplied: Aquatic Megafauna Research Unit/Valeria Senigaglia, taken with permit)

The research considered a number of factors that could impact calf survival in Bunbury, including climate change, but Ms Senigaglia said they did not have a big effect on the dolphin population.

“The [factor] that has the most negative influence on the survival is whether or not the mother of the calf received food from the dolphin centre,” she said.

She said it was likely because the dolphins had become reliant on humans for food, which could lead to female dolphins becoming less maternal towards their calves. “It’s only a couple of fish per day, which means the dolphins still have to feed by themselves, but because it’s so reliable as a source of food they’re hooked to come to the beach each day.”

Dolphin at play

PHOTO: One third of Bunbury calves from fed dolphins survive until three years old. (Supplied: Kate Sprogis/MUCRU)

‘We keep them wild’

In Western Australia there are two dolphin feeding locations licensed by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), the Bunbury Discovery Centre and the Monkey Mia reserve 900km north of Perth.

Other tourism operators around the state, including Mandurah Cruises, do not feed dolphins.

A group of people watch dolphins close to the beach in Bunbury.

PHOTO: Two locations in WA have licences to feed the dolphins, Bunbury and Monkey Mia. (ABC South West: Jacqueline Lynch)

Mandurah Cruises education officer Natalie Goodard said that was because of the impact of provisioning wild dolphins.

“It is detrimental to their health and wellbeing,” she said.

Ms Goddard said the Mandurah dolphin population was booming, with 15 calves born already this year.

“We actually have one of the greatest survival rates for calves here in Mandurah and that is because they are in such shallow, protected, calm waterways and they aren’t fed,” she said. “There’s no human interaction that impacts on them so greatly to result in any larger number of calves not surviving.”

No plans to stop dolphin feeding in WA

The Department would not be drawn on whether it planned to scrap the practice in WA but a spokeswoman said strict conditions were in place to protect the dolphins in Bunbury and Monkey Mia.

“Conditions are applied to each operation that include the quantities of fish that are allowed to be fed per dolphin per day and the manner in which they are fed,” she said.

The Dolphin Discovery Centre in Bunbury

PHOTO: The Dolphin Discovery Centre said it had strict protocols in place to protect the dolphins. (ABC South West: Jacqueline Lynch)

A DBCA-commissioned review of the food provisioning program at Monkey Mia in 2017 prompted tighter protocols at the marine reserve up north.

The spokeswoman said it was already making a difference. “Female reproductive success was vastly improved at Monkey Mia.”

In a statement the Dolphin Discovery Centre said it would be looking into the research as part of its strategy to protect the city’s dolphin population.

But it said it adhered to strict licence conditions from DBCA and had self-imposed management conditions in place.

Source: ABC

Sourced by Mike Barrow