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Miami’s real dolphins need our help to survive

Beloved creatures in Biscayne Bay live a challenging life and our pollution makes it tougher

South Florida's beloved unofficial mascots need help from humans on land and in the water to survive.
South Florida's beloved unofficial mascots need help from humans on land and in the water to survive.

MIAMI – Biscayne Bay is still reeling from a second fish kill in as many years as marine life continues to struggle with the degradation of the watershed.

And though it’s mostly bottom-dwellers and slow-moving fish that have died during these catastrophic events, scientists are worried about the impact being felt by all life in the bay.

Researchers from Florida International University are studying how our dolphins are surviving through these challenging times in the bay.

“These are the real Miami dolphins,” said Dr. Jeremy Kiszka, an FIU professor.

Dolphins are for many the most beloved marine mammals living in Biscayne Bay, South Florida’s unofficial mascot.

But for how much longer?

“We think there’s probably 150 animals across the entire bay,” Kiszka said.

He’s the lead dolphin researcher at FIU’s Institute of Environment and collaborating on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study launched in 1990 documenting the Biscayne Bay dolphin population.

“We simply want to understand where these animals are, how many there are and how they use their habitats,” he said.

It is urgent research. With the health of the bay rapidly declining, Kiszka is worried about the future of the population.

“They live in a very challenging environment,” he said. “Biscayne Bay dolphins don’t have an easy life.”

And it’s getting harder every day. Their foraging habitats are disappearing quickly. Many of the seagrass beds in the northern bay are now gone because of all the land-based pollutants that continue to flow into the watershed.

“They really depend on seagrass,” Kiszka said. “In seagrass beds, you have the food, dolphin food. You have fish.”

As the seagrass disappears, so will the fish, and so too will the dolphins who feed on them.

“What we’re trying to understand is how these animals respond to all these disturbances that are happening in the bay,” Kiszka said.

Once a week, Kiszka and his team set out on the bay to find and record as many dolphins encounters as they can. On this day when Local 10 News joined him, we got very lucky.

About 45 minutes into our journey, we found our first pod, foraging for food, just south of the Rickenbacker Causeway.

We observed but tried to keep our distance so as not to disturb them.

Before long, the naturally curious, charismatic cetaceans came in for a closer look.

It was paydirt for Kiszka, who photographed each animal.

He’s cataloging them, creating a Biscayne Bay dolphin census.

“Well, the dorsal fin of dolphins is like their fingerprint,” Kiszka said. “So we can identify each of the animals in Biscayne Bay by the shape and the notches they have on the trailing edge of the dorsal fin.”

Before long, our boat was surrounded and we realized it wasn’t just one pod but two of them — at least 15 dolphins in total — that came together to feed.

The good news is that we saw at least five calves in this group

“Whenever we see females with calves we’re really excited because its shows that the population is reproducing,” Kiszka said.

Still, it is an uphill struggle for the Biscayne Bay dolphins. There are more boaters than ever before and more pollution.

“Pollution is a problem that affects reproduction, and there’s disturbance whenever ... there are too many boats on the water,” Kiszka said. “You approach the animals too close, you disrupt their behavior.”

The 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act mandates that the public stay 50 yards away when observing dolphins in the wild. But if we’re really going to protect them, we’ll have to do a lot more than just keep our distance. Our activity not just on water but on land has a direct impact on the survival of the population.

Kiszka says the future of the Biscayne Bay dolphins depends on us.

“If there’s plastic in the ocean, if the bay is polluted, these animals are not going to be able to survive that long,” he said. “So if we’re not protecting Biscayne Bay and their habitat, the dolphins, they will disappear one day.”

Kiszka is advocating that parts of Biscayne Bay be designated a marine protected area to give the bay and its marine life a break from all the human pressure. In the meantime, lawmakers both at the local and state level are looking into shutting down the bay’s Spoil Islands to all motorboaters and watercraft users to lessen the pollution load strangling the watershed.


About the Author:

Louis Aguirre returned home to Miami and Local 10 in September 2017.