Staying Alive: Long-Term Success of Bottlenose Dolphin Interventions in Southwest Florida

Katherine A. McHugh, Aaron A. Barleycorn, Jason B. Allen, Kim Bassos-Hull, Gretchen Lovewell, Denise Boyd, Anna Panike, Carolyn Cush, Deborah Fauquier, Blair Mase, Robert C. Lacy, Michelle R. Greenfield, Daniel I. Rubenstein, Ann Weaver, Abby Stone, Lisa Oliver, Kent Morse, Randall S. Wells

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Small cetaceans face persistent threats from fisheries interactions, making effective mitigation a priority for conservation. In southwest Florida, interactions come primarily from small-scale recreational hook and line and trap/pot fisheries, with regional stranding network partners working with federal agency managers to assess and intervene as possible in cases of live animal entanglement. Evaluating success of intervention cases is difficult due to financial and logistical constraints which may preclude detailed follow-up monitoring. Survival over the initial 6 weeks post-release has been used as a marker of short-term success for small-cetacean rescue and/or rehabilitation cases. Early intervention prior to stranding, especially via remote disentanglement or rescue and immediate re-release onsite, can save entangled free-ranging dolphins facing life-threatening anthropogenic injuries. However, given the costs associated with interventions, it is important to understand the benefits of these endeavors not only to save individuals, but also to establish if and how saved individuals contribute to social functioning, survival and reproduction within small, resident populations facing multiple concurrent threats. Here we provide evidence from 27 well-documented common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) intervention cases during 1985–2019 where follow-up monitoring over multiple years sheds light on the longer-term success of these efforts and potential benefits to local populations. Nearly all rescued individuals (92%) survived longer than 6 weeks post-release (mean minimum survival period = 5 years, range 0–35 years), with 13 still observed frequently within their prior resident communities, in good physical health, and engaging in normal behavior. Survivorship rates did not decline substantially between 1 and 5 years post-rescue, meaning survival beyond 1 year may be a useful benchmark of long-term success. Rescued females that reached reproductive maturity (n = 4) have produced 12 post-intervention offspring to date. Social network analysis and demographic modeling applied to cases from the long-term resident community in Sarasota Bay confirmed that animals maintain social connections post-intervention and that interventions result in higher population growth rates. While not every intervention succeeds, this study demonstrates the conservation value of pre-stranding interventions which allow individuals that otherwise would be lost to remain viable and productive members of local populations when prevention of anthropogenic injury is not possible.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number624729
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
StatePublished - Jan 18 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography
  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Aquatic Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Environmental Science (miscellaneous)
  • Ocean Engineering


  • Tursiops
  • anthropogenic injury
  • bottlenose dolphin
  • case evaluation
  • entanglement
  • population modeling
  • rehabilitation
  • rescue


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