Two dead bottlenose dolphins washed ashore on Sarasota County’s beaches over the weekend, bringing the dolphin death toll there this month to 11 so far, according to a spokeswoman for Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.
No one is certain yet that they were victims of the Red Tide algae bloom that has lingered along the gulf coast since November, and has recently killed thousands of baitfish and sportfish, and is suspected of killing sea turtles, manatees and even a whale shark. But that’s the suspicion, said Mote spokeswoman Hayley Rutger.
The most worrisome sign is that one of those two new carcasses is the first one to come from Sarasota Bay’s own well-studied dolphin population, which numbers about 170.
The other 10 appeared to be residents of the Gulf of Mexico, according to Randy Wells, director of the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program — the world’s longest-running study of a dolphin population.
Sarasota Bay’s dolphin population had just had a record year for new births, Wells said.
"Things were looking pretty good, up until now," he said with a deep sigh.
The 12-year-old Sarasota Bay dolphin that washed up dead was named Speck, but not because he had some odd freckle or blemish.
"He was named after my dad," Wells said.
Born in 2006, Speck had been spotted about 340 times since then by researchers documenting the locations and behavior of several generations of Sarasota Bay’s dolphins as part of a study that began back in 1970.
Speck’s end brings to a close a downbeat family story. Speck’s grandmother, Squiggy, died in 2014 at age 58 from getting tangled in fishing gear. So did Speck’s mother, who had a number instead of a name, in 2012, at age 27. When Speck’s mother died, Speck’s sister was only seven months old, and the calf couldn’t make it alone, dying three weeks later.
Wells fears that Red Tide’s lasting impact on Sarasota’s dolphin population won’t be poisoning the marine mammals with its toxins, but rather sending more dolphins to die in the same way as Speck’s mother and grandmother.
"During our last big Red Tide here in 2005-2006," he said, "the biggest issue was not (the toxins) but that it caused a decline of 90 percent of their prey." As a result, he said, more of them began hanging around anglers, trying to snag their bait fish — and often getting tangled in their lines.
"We lost 2 percent of the population to ingestion of fishing gear," he said. "We’ll have to see if that’s the case this year."
The Red Tide bloom going on now has been called the worst in a decade. Red Tide blooms occur when small, scattered colonies of the microscopic algae Karenia brevis living 10 to 40 miles offshore suddenly multiply rapidly, staining the water a rusty color and producing toxins that can kill wildlife and irritate the eyes and lungs of humans.
No one knows what can spark a Red Tide bloom offshore, but once it moves closer to the coast it can be fueled by pollution from leaky septic tanks and sewer lines, as well as fertilizer from farms and lawns.
Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.