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Proponents insist Amendment 3 will save dolphins' lives

Few things capture the hearts of Floridians like a dolphin dancing across the sea at sunset. We consider them state treasures, property of the people, a natural resource we cannot afford to lose.

Yet each year an average of 150 of these marine mammals wind up on the beach, dead, many the victims of a chance encounter with humans. A few of the carcasses provide clues of the cause of death _ the scar of a net, jagged gash of a propellor, bite marks of a shark _ but the majority do not.

As a result, statistics kept on dolphin strandings are minimal at best. Not every dead dolphin conveniently washes ashore where it can be examined and logged in the record book.

Could some dolphin deaths be prevented? Backers of Amendment 3 say yes. Eliminate entanglement nets from Florida waters and you'll save both bottlenose dolphins and sea turtles.

Species that enjoy varying degrees of federal protection, be they "threatened," "endangered" or simply off limits to commercial harvesters, figure so prominently in the net debate that the amendment-backing Save Our Sealife committee chose a dolphin and sea turtle as two of the three netted animals in its campaign logo.

Bottlenose dolphins

Records of bottlenose dolphin deaths in Florida are maintained by the Southeastern U.S. Marine Mammal Stranded Network, a volunteer organization that operates under the auspices of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"The hardest thing to determine is the cause of death," said Jeff Brown of the fisheries service. "In many cases, the carcass is so badly decomposed we can't tell what killed it. And of course, a lot of dolphins sink when they die so we never see the bodies."

Of the animals that are found, reports characterize the type of stranding in one of two ways: mass stranding (marine mammals often follow a sick or dying leader to the beach) or human interaction. Within the latter category, volunteers specify subcategories: boat collision, shot, fishery interaction, other.

Federal statistics since 1987 show that an average of five of the dolphins found stranded or dead each year have shown evidence of "fishery interaction." Brown said some of these reports are "no-brainers"; for example, the animal is found entangled in a net or monofilament fishing line.

Others require some detective work.

"Dolphins sometimes strand with their flukes (tails) cut off," Brown said. "When they get caught in a net, they tend to roll or spin to try and get away and become entangled. The easiest way to get a dolphin out of a net is to cut the tail off."

Volunteers usually can tell the difference between a knife cut, which is clean and straight, and the jagged wound left by a shark, one of the dolphin's natural predators.

Last month Save Our Sealife released a photograph of a dead dolphin wrapped in a net. "This young male porpoise (dolphin) was found hopelessly entangled in a gill net in the Indian River in Brevard County, one of five such killings in a single month during 1992."

Records from the Marine Stranding Network, a volunteer organization that operates under the auspices of the Fisheries Service, show only three strandings in Brevard County for that year, and those during a six-month period.

In letter of clarification, Save Our Sealife campaign manager Bill Coletti said that the dolphin in question "was one of four killed in a one-month period from Sept. 22 to Oct. 25, 1992."

Stranding Network records list three dead dolphins for that time period, one of which was found on the west coast of Florida.

"As to why the Stranding Network didn't receive reports on all those dolphins, I can't tell you," Coletti said. "We feel our information is accurate."

Jerry Sansom of the Organized Fishermen of Florida, the state's largest commercial fishing organization, said backers of the amendment have brought dolphins into the campaign to play on voters' emotions.

"Dolphins die for a lot of reasons, but nets are not a significant factor," he said. "If you followed that line of logic, then cars would be banned in South Florida to protect panthers, planes would be banned to protect eagles and boats would be banned to protect manatees."

All commercial fishermen are blamed for the illegal acts of a few, Sansom said. "We cannot control what every single net fisherman does or says."

The sea turtle population

Unlike the bottlenose dolphin, which is not considered a threatened or endangered species, Florida's sea turtles have attracted attention on a national scale. In August, the Department of Environmental Protection asked the state Marine Fisheries Commission to ban nets in a four-county area on Florida's east coast.

"Banning these nets is absolutely critical to the health of the sea turtle population," said Virginia B. Wetherell, head of the environmental agency.

Wetherell's request is the latest chapter in a four-year battle to shut down the mid-east coast gill-net fishery to protect endangered juvenile green sea turtles. Recent regulatory changes have helped reduce the number of sea turtle strandings in that area, but officials still feel too many are killed.

Statewide, sea turtle strandings peaked at 1,197 in 1989 and steadily dropped to 641 in 1993, perhaps, researchers say, as a result of stricter net regulations and the introduction of turtle excluder devices, which help prevent turtles from drowning in shrimp nets.

The deadliest area for sea turtles in Florida is the shoreline that stretches from Brevard to Martin counties. Deaths of threatened loggerhead and endangered green sea turtles peaked there in 1990 at 1,215.

"A young green sea turtle that dies in a net won't have visible net marks," said David Godfrey of the Sea Turtle Survival League. "But remember, these animals have been around for millions of years. They predate dinosaurs and are perfectly adapted to life at sea. They just don't drown."