January 25th, 2016 (Sharon Kennedy). The begging behaviour of a group of dolphins in Koombana Bay, south of Perth, has become more noticeable during the school holidays according to a marine biologist.
The Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre’s Phil Coulthard said, while the Centre itself fed dolphins to encourage human interaction, the program was licensed and controlled, and managed through an ethical approach.
“We’re seeing multiple boats each hour of the day … feeding dolphins,” he said.
Ed Sibylline : whatever the licence or control, or its lack, we don’t feed wild fauna and we don’t interact purposely with it… This enterprise just wants to be alone in its business…
Mr Coulthard believed that feeding dolphins was encouraged by movies such as Flipper.
“People think that it’s OK to feed dolphins a lot of fish,” he said.
“It could be fresh fish, it could be bait, but it certainly isn’t a good thing to do.”
Mr Coulthard said there were half a dozen dolphins in Koombana Bay that begged all day, approaching one boat after the other.
“They will follow you, wait for you to stop, circle you. They will wait and wait and wait until they realise they’re not going to get anything.”
Bait, in particular, is not good for dolphins.
“It’s the same as us going for fast food every day,” he said.
Mr Coulthard said, while not all boats offered food, it was possible for the mammals to receive their entire daily intake by begging.
“If you go to 100 boats and you get a kilo of from each boat, that amounts to a bellyful of fish in a day,” he said.
“The young will learn the same behaviour.”
Research shows an increase in calf mortality
Mr Coulthard said research from both Australia and overseas showed that increased human engagement, particularly close to the coast, was having an impact on the survival rates of dolphin calves.
“Mortality rates are slowly increasing,” he said.
The young succumb to boat strikes and entanglements but also suffer from the deterioration of the mother’s health and a consequent lower quality of milk.
“We’re starting to lose dolphins earlier and the babies aren’t surviving as long as they should,” Mr Coulthard said.
“Overall the population is starting to decrease.”
The Bunbury Dolphin Discovery Centre has the only licence to feed dolphins within Koombana Bay.
The Centre began in 1989 as a tourist attraction with the aim of bringing dolphins closer to humans.
After a shaky start, it regained a licence in the early 1990s to feed the animals and revised its practices.
The result, according to Mr Coulthard, was a more controlled and consistent approach, handing a decreased amount of fish to a select number of dolphins.
As a marine biologist, Mr Coulthard was aware of the “hypocrisy” of a conservation centre engaging in practices that may be harmful.
“The bottom line is, without a provisioning program to attract the few dolphins to our area … the dolphin centre wouldn’t be here.”
Whether or not teaching dolphins to associate humans with food affects the animals adversely could only by determined by research, he said.
Mr Coulthard said Murdoch University would continue their studies on dolphin population dynamics in 2016, with PhD students focusing on human impacts such as recreational boating or commercial shipping.
“We now have 10 to 20 years of baseline data.”
Mr Coulthard said tourism without impact was not possible, and that the best approach was to have a minimal impact through observation and understanding.
“We learn as much as we can and take every bit of information we can get to improve,” he said.
If through ongoing research a “measureable, unacceptable impact” was found, Mr Coulthard said the Centre would again change its practices.
But he said if the Discovery Centre did not exist, people would still want to interact with dolphins.
He saw such unregulated contact as potentially more detrimental than the present approach.
“Down the line, we are trying to get ahead and work out what the impacts are and to refine what we do,” he said.
Risk to humans
As a final warning on the subject, Mr Coulthard pointed out that there were fines both for feeding and purposefully swimming with dolphins.
“People don’t realise how big, strong and sometimes very nasty dolphins can get, particularly during the breeding season,” he said.
“That’s the other reason why there are penalties for feeding and swimming with dolphins in Western Australia; it’s for our own wellbeing.”