Angry boaters take aim at dolphins

PANAMA CITY – Miles offshore, a fight is raging between bottlenose dolphins and angry anglers armed with guns and bombs, the marine mammals popularized in movies and TV shows such as “Flipper.”

Boat captains say dolphins, known for their toothy grins and playfulness, are growing increasingly aggressive in their quest for food, with some taking fish right off the hook – something that rarely happened just a few years ago.

In response, fishermen are pulling out everything from pipe bombs to .357-caliber Magnum pistols to fend them off – and breaking a federal law against harming the sea mammals.

The head of a national fishing organization, Bob Zales II, said the problem of bottlenose dolphins stealing fish has gotten “tremendously worse” in the past year. So have stories of retaliation by angry boat captains and ordinary anglers.

“You have people who are getting so frustrated they’re shooting at them,” said Zales, of Panama City, who is president of the National Association of Charter Boat Operators.

The captain of a Florida-based fishing boat is serving two years in prison after pleading guilty this year to making pipe bombs and tossing them at dolphins, which are protected by federal law.

Two other captains have pleaded guilty to shooting at the animals in the Gulf of Mexico, home to tens of thousands of dolphins, in the past three years. And four dead dolphins washed ashore with bullet wounds near San Diego, Calif., in 2007.

It’s dangerous for dolphins to compete with people for fish, regardless of whether anglers fight back. Forty-six of the animals are known to have died along the Florida coast since 2005 after either swallowing recreational fishing gear or becoming entangled in lines, according to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.

Marine experts and boat captains agree there’s a problem, but they differ over why some animals have become so brazen.

Stacey Hortsman, dolphin conservation coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service in St. Petersburg, said studies have linked the dolphins’ behavior with people feeding dolphins, often from sightseeing tours that are common in many resort areas. Dolphins learn to hang around people for food handouts, she said.

Zales blames the problem on state and federal fishing limits enacted in recent years to protect against overfishing of species like red snapper.

Rather than saving fish, he said, the rules cause many anglers to throw back undersized ones – oftentimes right into the jaws of waiting dolphins.

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