Don’t feed the dolphins – they can learn bad habits from each other

Wild dolphin visits boat. Picture by Gail Broady on FlickrYou’re out on a boat fishing and a dolphin appears beside you.  It looks at you sideways, with those intelligent eyes.  What harm could there be from giving it a bit of fish?  Maybe it’ll stick around. You toss it over to the animal.  Yum.

What could be the harm in this?

Sadly, the answer is: quite a lot.

Studies into provisional feeding (humans giving animals food in the wild) have shown that animals can become dependent on these food handouts. The classic example is the famous Monkey Mia, where visitors have been able to feed local dolphins by hand for over 40 years.  In the 1960s, fishers returning to Monkey Mia began sharing their catch with some local dolphins.  Over the years, the dolphins’ trust grew and several more were fed at the jetty and later the beach.  As increasing numbers of visitors came to see the dolphins, news of the phenomenon spread.

Yet as the practice grew, some of the dolphins came to rely on hand-outs and began to lose their wild instincts, such as their ability to hunt.  Calves of some overfed dolphins even starved to death because of neglect by their mothers.  Between 1987 and 1994, 92% (11 of 12) of nursing calves born to provisioned (hand-fed) females died.   Since 1995, when the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) changed the feeding program, only 23% (3 of 13) of calves born to provisioned females have died, one of whom was killed by a shark.  Careful management means that the dolphins can continue to be able to support themselves naturally, and pass on these survival skills to the next generation.

Bad Habit

It is illegal under state and federal law in Australia to feed wild dolphins.  The managed feeding of wild dolphins occurs in only a few places, where interactions are licensed and subject to stringent regulations so as to protect the animals.

Monkey Mia taught us why.  And another recent study from Cockburn Sound near Perth emphasises it.

Bec Donaldson from Murdoch University’s Conservation Medicine Program started researching the Cockburn Sound dolphins in 1993, focusing on social ecology.  Further research was carried out until 2003 by Hugh Finn of the University’s Cetacean Research Unit (MUCRU).  The 80km2, semi-enclosed bay south of Fremantle includes Perth’s main industrial area, a naval base, and important recreational and commercial fisheries. There are also about 75 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins resident year-round.

Over the years, the researchers collected information on illegal feeding of the dolphins by recreational fishers in the area.  The number of dolphins ‘begging’ for food increased from one individual at first (‘Touch’) to fourteen (especially males, I might add).  How?  Associates of beggars learned how to do it themselves.  Dolphins were more likely to become beggars if they spent more time in areas with lots of recreational boats, and associated with other begging dolphins.

Dolphins are social animals, and can learn from each other.  Even bad behaviours.  So what?

Begging is not a good thing to learn.  The researchers also found that dolphins who had learned to beg from humans had higher rates of injury from boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.  They became conditioned to human interactions.  One dolphin, ‘Hook’, disappeared after eight years of begging, in which his behaviour changed dramatically.  He became a loner and started travelling  to beg from boats far out of his home range.  He hasn’t been seen since 2008-9.

A community education campaign in the area in 2008 reduced the amount of illegal feeding, but it hasn’t stopped entirely.

What to do?

Managers need to take into account that dolphins can potentially learn harmful behaviours from each other socially.  More research must be conducted on individual animals to determine what factors may influence this.

Secondly, we as the public need to be aware that – no matter how cute they are and how harmless it may seem – feeding animals in the wild is just not good for them.  Don’t do it.  If you’re out on the water and a dolphin pops up beside you that’s great… In fact it’s pretty awesome!  But please think about the potential effect you could have before tossing into that grinning mouth a big delicious fish.

Link to the scientific paper:

Donaldson, R., Finn, H., Bejder, L., Lusseau, D., Calver, M. (2012), The social side of human–wildlife interaction: wildlife can learn harmful behaviours from each other. Animal Conservation. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-1795.2012.00548.x

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4 thoughts on “Don’t feed the dolphins – they can learn bad habits from each other

  1. great post! I hadn’t realised the extent of the problem in Monkey Mia and it’s disappointing the tourism industry kept encouraging dolphin feeding despite the long-term issues it can cause. there’s similar problems with begging seals around Phillip Island (Victoria) and it’s too easy to dismiss it as cute behaviour instead of educating people about its harmful effects

  2. seathechange says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I think it’s hard for local governments to raise awareness, because it seems so harmless and it’s really difficult to convince everyone that feeding wild animals isn’t a good idea. Like you say, it seems like cute behaviour. And after all, we’re encouraged to feed animals in petting zoos and wildlife parks – emus and kangaroos for example. Monkey Mia is very strictly managed now, and in fact is a good example for anywhere around the world that wants to feed wild animals, but personally I still don’t think it should be done at all.

  3. This is a terrific and highly informative article. Thank you for posting it!

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