15 more dolphins found dead in Collier, Lee; birds dying on Marco Island
Dolphins are continuing to wash up dead on beaches in Collier and Lee counties as officials wait for water sample results to pinpoint the cause.
An additional 15 dolphins washed up dead in Collier and Lee counties Tuesday, bringing the total to 37 since Nov. 21, said Blair Mase, a marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Even before the dolphins began washing ashore, wildlife rescuers have been inundated with sick shorebirds from southern Collier County. Most of them have died, and tests are pending to determine the cause.
NOAA biologists are still receiving reports of additional dead dolphins washing up across the counties and are working to confirm those reports and remove the animals from the beaches, Mase said.
Officials across Southwest Florida are waiting for the results of water sample testing done by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to help confirm what is killing the dolphins.
von Arx Wildlife Hospital feed a Sandwich tern rescued from Marco Island. Jon Austria, firstname.lastname@example.org; 239-227-7803
When water testing results come in late Tuesday or Wednesday, Mase said she expects to see a spike in red tide counts.
“We do suspect red tide at this point, just because it's been so prevalent in the area,” Mase said. “We've seen dolphins impacted by it for months.”
Since July, higher-than-normal numbers of bottlenose dolphins have washed ashore dead in Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, according to NOAA.
NOAA declared the spate of deaths an Unusual Mortality Event.
Full or partial necropsies on several dolphins since July found the red tide toxin, indicating red tide is to blame.
NOAA cannot confirm whether the latest string of dead dolphins in Lee and Collier counties has been caused by the red tide toxin until tests are completed, Mase said.
Including the animals found Tuesday, more than 100 dead dolphins have been found across the seven counties that are part of the Unusual Mortality Event since it began in July, Mase said.
“That's obviously something we are concerned about is the number of dolphins dying along the coastline,” Mase said. “If this trend continues it could have significant impacts on our bottlenose dolphin population.”
Dolphins of all ages, sizes and genders have been affected by the Unusual Mortality Event.
Other species, such as sea turtles, have also washed up dead in Collier and Lee counties in the past few days, Mase said.
Sick birds on Marco Island
Birds in southern Collier County are getting sick and dying as well.
Joanna Fitzgerald, the director of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida's von Arx Wildlife Hospital, said something other than red tide could be affecting the birds.
For about three weeks, the wildlife hospital has admitted sick sandwich terns and common terns on a daily basis from Marco Island beaches, Fitzgerald said.
Most days Adam DiNuovo, a program manager with Audubon Florida, brings four to five sick birds in the morning and four to five more in the afternoon from Marco Island to the wildlife hospital.
From Nov. 11-17 the wildlife hospital admitted 24 sandwich terns and common terns, and 92 percent of those animals have died, Fitzgerald said.
In addition to those terns, some royal terns and laughing gulls have been admitted to the wildlife hospital recently, Fitzgerald said.
When these species of birds are suffering because of toxin from red tide, Fitzgerald said, they do not normally die as quickly as have the birds admitted to the hospital recently.
The latest water sample results from the FWC, posted Nov. 20, showed patchy areas of medium concentrations of red tide at the south end of Sanibel and in the Lovers Key area near Bonita Springs in Lee County.
Counts in the rest of Lee and in Collier counties were mostly at natural background levels, according to the sample results. This is part of the reason Fitzgerald has been careful not to assume red tide is is killing the birds, she said.
“I can’t say either way right now,” Fitzgerald said. “I cannot say if it’s red tide or a virus until we get the test results back.”
Testing to determine the cause of death has been done on several birds, and Fitzgerald said she expects results in the next few days.
She said she has never seen this many deaths of birds of these species in her 25 years at the wildlife hospital.
“We are providing a wide variety of treatments and doing everything we can,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s tough until we know what’s causing it because they are passing away quickly. Most are lasting just hours at the hospital, which makes it difficult to help.”
Dead dolphins in Naples
In Naples at least five dead dolphins have been found on beaches in the city since Sunday.
Naples Harbormaster Roger Jacobsen said two washed up dead on Naples beaches Tuesday. One was found on Via Miramar Beach in the morning, and another on the beach near the 1200 block of Gulf Shore Boulevard North in the afternoon, he said.
A third dead dolphin was discovered Monday morning south of the Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club close to Central Avenue.
That dead dolphin was moved to near Third Avenue North, where it was removed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Jacobsen said.
Here's the difference between red tide and blue-green algae. Wochit
The fourth dead dolphin was discovered washed up Monday morning at the private park on Moorings Beach and was also picked up by the FWC, Jacobsen said.
The fifth dead dolphin was removed from the beach south of Lowdermilk Park close to North Lake Drive at about 11 a.m. Sunday.
Officials also heard reports of a sixth dead dolphin floating near the shore at Horizon Way beach on Gulf Shore Boulevard on Monday, but the animal has yet to be recovered, Jacobsen said.
Colleen Gill, a resident of Naples for almost four years, has spent the past couple of mornings at Naples beaches documenting the dead dolphins.
She has been walking the beaches, taking photos and appearing in Facebook Live videos to bring attention to the effects of the red tide for about six months. Gill found two dead dolphins on Naples beaches Monday.
“Monday hit me hard because I am a kayaker and dolphins are my company out in the water,” Gill said. “I got really upset, really enraged. I had every emotion go through me at once. I am tired of seeing our paradise dying.”
After following the effects of red tide for the past several months, Gill said she predicted dolphins and animals higher up on the food chain would be affected eventually.
“This is not normal,” Gill said. “As citizens we need to start demanding answers. We’ve been too silent for too long. We need to take responsibility for our own impact on the environment.”
A possibility of lasting effects
Experts monitoring the dolphin Unusual Mortality Event in Southwest Florida were optimistic that the event could have been winding down shortly before the latest spike in deaths, Mase said.
In October fewer than five bottlenose dolphins were reported stranded across the seven counties affected by the Unusual Mortality Event, according to NOAA data.
In September this number was less than 20 compared with more than 40 in August, according to the data.
With the late November spike, Mase said there is cause for concern.
"It's not just these immediate deaths,” Mase said. “If the red tide is the cause, we know that it does directly impact bottlenose dolphins, but also it impacts the fish population. Lack of prey could impact the dolphins down the road.”
The bottlenose dolphin is the most common dolphin found in Florida. They're popular with tourists and locals alike. Chad Gillis/The News-Press
Kim Amendola, the communications supervisor for NOAA Fisheries division, said it’s possible there are more dolphins and other animals killed by the red tide than are being found and reported.
If water sample test results come in and there is not a spike in red tide counts as Mase expects, other factors, such as a virus, will have to be considered when determining the cause of the recent dolphin deaths.
NOAA biologists are in response mode, Mase said.
"The number of animals coming in is very high still,” Mase said. “We are still just trying to get every animal accounted for and responded to. Some sampling is going on, but the samples have not yet been sent out for analysis."
The most important step the public can take to assist investigators is to immediately report any sightings of live dolphins in distress or stranded, or any dead dolphins, according to NOAA.
Make the report by calling the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 877-WHALE HELP (877-942-5343) or by contacting the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16.