Protecting dolphins during boating season

Dolphins are a common sight for boaters (Courtesy: WCIV)

By Sonya

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - Fishing, boating, and paddleboarding: these are just some of the activities people enjoy in the Lowcountry. While you are out on the water, you may encounter dolphins but it's important not to get too close.

"The rule of thumb is about 50 yards from the animals and since these animals are exposed to boat traffic all day long, every day, especially during the spring and summer seasons," said Wayne McFee, a research wildlife biologist with NOAA. "They recommend 30 minutes of viewing from a safe distance."

And it's important to idle your engine if a dolphin comes over to your boat to keep them away from the propellers. But the biggest rule of all with these animals is to not feed them -- it is illegal and could land you a fine.

"That human behavior actually translates into these dolphins being accustomed or habituated to boats, which can expose them to propellers, boat strikes, and things like that," said McFee. "It can also change the way they feed and take them out of their natural habitat to feed."

Protecting these mammals is crucial to keeping the food chain healthy and keeping the mortality rate down in the Palmetto State.

"We get about 50 strandings per year and in Charleston County that number is somewhere between, I think the average is around 22 animals per year," said McFee.

Most of them are considered human interaction cases.

"Could be entanglements from ropes, could be marine debris, could be boat strikes, those types of things," said McFee. "About 25 percent of the animals we see dead on our beaches in South Carolina have some sort of human interaction, which is actually a large percentage considering all the other ways you could have mortality out there."

But most of the time the interaction is not intentional.

"The biggest problem we have had in South Carolina has been entanglements in crab pot line, but the crab pot fishermen we worked with them on a number of studies over the years and they have been really great in helping us out and actually we get a lot of reports from those fishermen of dead animals either on the beach or in the marsh or in their lines," said McFee.

Scientists at NOAA estimate that there are between 200 and 300 dolphins in the Charleston estuary. That number is based on a study completed in 2008.

"We are very adamant that people, if they see dolphins dead on the beach, floating in the water is to leave them alone, call the proper officials to go out and handle them," said McFee. "We have the proper gear, the mask to wear out there on the beach and just to keep their distance from these animals but just to give us a call and let us know what is going on."

If you encounter one of these stranded animals, call the state's Department of Natural Resources at 1-800-922-5431.

And if we are all looking out for these amazing creatures then we can all enjoy them in their natural habitat.