Humans, dolphins share bad eating habits

Beggar, a local dolphin, is notorious for accepting food from area boaters.

The opportunistic dolphin is not alone.

Area boaters have reported pods of dolphins that do flips and leap like trained dolphins, coming close to boats in Charlotte Harbor and acting like escapees from SeaWorld.

It’s tempting to feed them, Rick Stager told the Sun in an earlier report. Stager and Peg Matthys were sailing last summer on Charlotte Harbor off El Jobean when they encountered six dolphins acting “almost too friendly,” they said. Knowing it was illegal, they did not feed the dolphins.

Continued interaction between humans and dolphins puts dolphins at risk for injury from propellers and can make them limit their natural foraging ranges to follow boats, according to studies on dolphin behavior.

About 50 people filled a banquet room at the Half Shell Oyster House in Sarasota on Thursday for a discussion, sponsored by Mote Marine Laboratory, on nutrition and the eating habits of dolphins and humans.

The event, called the Science Café, was led by Dr. Katie McHugh, a researcher with the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, and

Adriel Zahniser, a registered dietitian working for Sara-sota County Schools as anutrition educator and chef.

The discussion bounced back and forth between the unhealthy — and illegal — feeding of dolphins by humans, and efforts in the Sarasota County School District to provide nutritious food options to area school children.

McHugh referred periodically to Beggar, a local dolphin who routinely accepts food from boaters.

“Hand-feeding encourages dolphins like Beggar to seek out close interactions with people,” McHugh said. “This can have consequences such as them being struck by boats and propellers, or entangled in fishing gear. Also, Beggar now is alone most of the time, seeking out boaters as his companions, begging for and getting rewarded with food — regardless of how good or bad the food is for him.”

Zahniser echoed McHugh’s comments, redirecting them at school kids who receive unhealthy food as a reward for good manners in class or a favorable test grade.

“Food as a reward in the classroom can be a problem, especially when it’s M&Ms or a Hershey’s Kiss if you get an A on a test,” she said. “We battle a lot with that, because we mainly control what’s served in the cafeteria. It’s up to me as an educator to help kids choose the right foods.”

Both Zahniser and McHugh agreed that education and parental influence are key to helping both dolphins and school children live healthier lives.

“Dolphins learn how to feed, they learn how to behave, they learn how to interact with other dolphins — and people — from their mothers,” McHugh said. “Too many dolphin deaths are attributed to calves getting caught in the nets of fishermen, because their mothers venture too close to boats to beg for food. This is not OK. Boaters must keep a safe distance from dolphins, and they should educate each other on how to help dolphins better survive in the wild.”


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