Save dolphins. Protect the sea!
Tatiana Belei
The Head of Dolphin Rescue and Research Center "The Delfa"

Save dolphins. Protect the sea!

Dolphins keep on dying in the Black Sea. In March, over a hundred dead marine mammals were discovered on the sea shore in the Krasnodar Territory. The active development of fishing is among the reasons. In addition, bottle-nosed dolphins, white-bellied dolphins and common porpoises living off the coast of the Kuban play an important role in the balance of populations of sea animals. Tatyana Beley, head of the Delfa Scientific and Environmental Dolphin Rescue Center working in Sochi since 2018, explains why dolphins swim into shallow water and end up stranding themselves on beaches, and where the line between ecology and economics lies.

- Spring is considered the traditional time when dolphins beach themselves. But this year, the situation can be called very sad. What is the number of dolphins’ deaths this season?

- Spring is indeed considered the season when dolphins beach themselves and die. This happens for several reasons. One of them is sea pollution due to weather conditions because snow melts in the mountains, temperature changes, and greater quantities of industrial, agricultural, and sewage wastewater flow into the sea during storms, rainfalls and with the rivers’ water. This results in higher intoxication of dolphins, their immunity decreases, and they begin to get seriously ill. The second reason is that in the spring, fishing intensifies with the use of gillnets and flounder nets that are the most dangerous fishing gear for cetaceans. It turns out, there is a broad range of factors. On average, we record about 350 dead dolphins per year. In 2022, there was an epizootic of a viral infection (an analogue of an epidemic in animals) among the white-bellied dolphins and common porpoises, and the number of dead marine mammals increased to 600, but in 2023, there was a ‘lull’ with 200 dead dolphins only, which always happens after such surges in dolphins’ deaths because due to infection, the number of these species of cetaceans, in general, decreases and the strongest marine mammals normally survive. Moreover, in March 2024, 137 dead dolphins were recorded; the peak number (101 dead dolphins) was in the last week from March 23 to April 1. In January and February, the number of dead dolphins was around 30 and such a serious figure couldn’t not escape our attention. Most of the dead dolphins showed signs of being entangled in fishing nets because we saw that their fins and tails were cut off, they had puncture wounds, cut-open bellies, and thin long dents in their skin. The flounder fishing quotas in the Black Sea were doubled this year, so we can conclude that fishing was the main reason for the deaths of dolphins in March 2024.


- Does this situation continue?

- In April, the situation was different. There were even more dolphins that beached themselves, but most of the bodies were quite badly rotten, so it was difficult to get any information required. Several cetaceans stranded themselves due to illness. In two of them, hematological blood tests showed the viral infection. The data was not sufficient to say definitively whether this was a seasonal virus or whether these were signs of a possible epizootic. We need to continue our research. But this requires blood analysis from living dolphins or blood samples from the ones that died not long ago. The most informative is an autopsy immediately after death, but according to the rules, only specialized state veterinary laboratories can perform it. Our hotline receives a lot of messages every day. Due to the number and condition of the bodies, it is difficult to process the messages accurately to exclude the repeated ones about the same mammals. But I can say that during 18 days of April, at least 150 cases of death of cetaceans were recorded on the sea shore in the Krasnodar Territory.

- Of course, it is impossible to ban fishing as people need fish. Is it possible to find the ‘golden mean’ between saving dolphins and satisfying the human needs?

- This is a difficult question. The ‘golden mean’ is being sought all over the world. I think that first of all, people should look for an alternative to gillnets that are very dangerous. These fishing nets are made of thin fishing line and are large-mesh ones, the fish catches on them with their gills. But when a dolphin gets caught, it gets stuck with its tail, fin, rostrum, and the harder a dolphin tries to get out, the more entangled it is. I know that the gillnets are made thinner now, so that dolphins could tear them, but apparently, this does not help. It may be necessary to reduce ‘load’ on fishing grounds because there are too many fishing nets in every zone. Marine protected areas should be established in key cetacean areas and fishermen should not cast nets when there are cetaceans in the vessel’s field of sight and in places where the dolphins’ migration routes are located. There is no special map of such routes, but fishermen know these places very well and should be more responsible. Fishermen often perceive dolphins as competitors for fish, but it should be kept in mind that after all, the sea belongs to fish and marine mammals. In addition, being at the top of the ‘food chain’, they help in ‘maintaining’ the balance of the entire marine ecosystem. If there are no dolphins, there will be no fish in the sea.


- Is it possible to help dolphins in their fighting various viruses?

- This is a difficult question, too. It is not possible to vaccinate the cetaceans. People shouldn’t pollute the dolphins’ ‘home’. It is necessary for everyone to be more conscious of their ecological footprint, and the enterprises, fishing companies, fishermen, and those who navigate ships or just any person - all of them should have eco-friendly habits. For now, we can only nurse sick dolphins and hope that they will get well. The outcome is unpredictable in each case. For example, at the end of March, two dying common porpoises were found. We managed to nurse one ‘patient’ back to health, the mammal got well and swam out to sea, but the other one died on the second day.

- What is usually done to ‘treat’ sick dolphins?

- Nowadays, the treatment is very difficult. Most often, dolphins swim into shallow water to die and when we find them, they undergo all the necessary veterinary procedures in such ‘field’ conditions and are given certain medicines. At the same time, dolphins must constantly ‘swim out’ and ‘come to the surface’; if a mammal just lies motionless, it will die. We do not have a special in-patient facility for dolphins, so all problems are resolved ‘on the spot’, and a round-the-clock duty is organized, which is not very easy. This year, we have a special ‘Dolphomobile’. In fact, this is a small converted Renault Master van that has everything necessary for providing first aid - medical equipment and medicine chests, a lot of medicines and consumables, a folding bathtub that can be used if there are large waves at sea, equipment for making blood analysis, including biochemical and hematological analyzers, gas and electrolyte analyzer, centrifuge, coagulometer, microscope, and portable ultrasonograph. The van has all the necessary additional equipment, it has a folding table, and our volunteers also have things they need during their night duty.

- The Delfa Dolphin Rescue Center has been operating since 2018. Did you manage to save any dolphins?

- Previously, we were only able to provide palliative care to dolphins. We say that dolphins beach themselves, but most often, they appear on the sea shore already dead and are ‘brought’ by the sea. Or a dolphin is very weak and swims into shallow water in an extremely critical condition. So, a philosophical question arises, the one all resuscitators have “Is it worth prolonging the suffering?” It is not easy to answer the question, but in any case, we can protect a mammal against injury, reduce stress and pain so that it could ‘go out of this world’ without suffering. Over the years of work, we gained experience in saving dolphins. During the epizootic, six cetaceans survived thanks to our help. I don’t know whether this number is big or small, because it’s impossible to predict the outcome. Sometimes, it seems like it’s not a big deal, it’s necessary to give just a little support and care and everything will be fine, but the dolphin we take care about ‘departs’ - and it doesn’t swim out to sea... And sometimes you think “It’s a hopeless case!”, but our efforts help and a sick or wounded dolphin gets well. A white-bellied dolphin called Mickey Rourke was among our ‘patients’ during the epizootic. Mickey was very seriously ill, could not move or eat, and it breathed with difficulty. We had practically no hope for Mickey’s survival. But the dolphin began to revive after we started the treatment. This was facilitated by regular swimming with the mammal (at first, with full support) and helping it to dive, which is like teaching a baby to swim; you need to carefully observe the blowhole, as soon as the dolphin exhales/inhales and the blowhole closes, you need to carefully immerse the dolphin for a short time in water while moving. Mickey Rourke was weak but kept on fighting for its life, and almost tried to bite me. When the mammal felt better, we swam with it for quite a long time and distances; at first, Mickey ‘obeyed’ me and we returned to the shore together for treatment procedures. Then Mickey started ‘objecting’ against my attempts to turn it towards the shore. And at some moment, the dolphin decided to swim away. Surprisingly, Mickey returned after a while to once again feed on live fish. The dolphin swam with me again for a while and made sure that it was strong enough and no longer wanted to depend on people, Mickey swam out to sea forever. It turns out that we do our best to help and give them a chance to survive. If all goes well, the dolphins have immunity from the virus and pass it on to others; this is not only the help to one dolphin, but a benefit for the future.


- Do you observe or monitor the rescued dolphins? Perhaps, you mark them somehow.

- We don’t make any special marks. Just imagine, a sick dolphin has just started to feel better, and it has to suffer a through-puncture of the caudal fin, this is just one more gateway for infection. As a matter of fact, people - and not the dolphins - need such marks to collect some data and statistics. Therefore, we simply enter the fins of each dolphin into the database; we can identify each dolphin using the fin images like fingerprints.

We regularly go out to sea by boat to observe the distribution of the number of cetaceans and their condition in the water area of the Sochi’s Adler District and the federal territory of Sirius, we keep records and compile a photo-identification catalog. Processing photographs is a long and painstaking process, so now, we jointly with our partners are creating and training a neural network to make things move faster and be more interesting. Also, during expeditions, we shoot underwater videos, analyze the behavior of cetaceans and communicate with them; if possible, we record their voices on a hydrophone. We also take samples of the exhalations of dolphins - when they swim close to our boat, jump out of water and exhale air from their blowholes, we need to quickly react and ‘catch’ this exhalation by a Petri dish. We need this to analyze the respiratory microbiome - whether there are pathogenic microorganisms in the exhalations and what their quantities are. If the number of pathogenic microorganisms exceeds certain figures, this indicates a decrease in immunity.

- What do your observations show, is the dolphin population stable in the Black Sea?

- It’s too early to talk about this, the observation period at our center is short, and there was an epizootic that affected the number of dolphins. However, many locals note that there used to be more dolphins. As for the places where dolphins most often beach themselves, these are the Central and Lazarevsky Districts, as well as Adler and Kudepsta in Sochi, the Tonky Mys (Thin Cape) area in Gelendzhik, the city center and the Myskhako District in Novorossiysk. There are quite a lot of dolphins that strand themselves on beaches in Anapa, less cases are seen in Tuapse, but there are many places on the shore seldom visited by people. Therefore, there are less dolphins that beach themselves in this area, according to statistics. The dolphins strand themselves on beaches all along the sea shore. Our hotline at the Delphi Center receives calls from people who tell about dead dolphins; we always ask them to take photographs of them and send us the coordinates. We include the information about the dead mammals in our statistics, which we give to various government departments upon request. This part of the work is required to have an objective information about the cetacean mortality and the state of their populations. If possible, we take biological materials to study them to determine the probable cause of death, everything depends on the condition of the dead dolphin’s body. We visually determine whether there were traces of bycatch - accidental catch in fishing nets. We send the information about the dead mammals to the Public Safety Answering Point, and it goes to other authorities from PSAP, such as the environmental prosecutor’s office, the veterinary department and a specialized organization having a license that allows them to remove and dispose of the dead animals’ bodies, because this is potentially hazardous biological waste.


- Your job is not easy...

- Right, it’s not easy, and it’s often very sad. However, happy cases of saving seriously ill dolphins and rescuing cetaceans from nets do not allow us to give up. Watching and communicating with free dolphins in the open sea gives you a lot of joy and strength. We are a non-profit organization that relies on donations from people and companies that are not indifferent to dolphins. We have 5 people on our staff - the chief veterinarian, a researcher, a coordinator, an accountant, and me as a manager. About 150 participants are in our volunteer groups, and 10-15 people constantly work with us. Still, this work requires a certain dedication, which not everyone is ready for. As I say, one has to really love dolphins to do our work.

- Is there any experience in saving dolphins in the world?

- There are similar centers like Delfa in our country, too. For example, there is the Serene Sea organization in the Crimea, as well as a Seal Treatment Center for pinnipeds in Vladivostok and another one in St. Petersburg, as well as a marine mammal assistance group (called ‘Friends of the Ocean’) on the Sakhalin Island. The most advanced cetacean treatment center is in Holland. They mainly help porpoises - this species lives also in the Black Sea and is called common porpoises, these animals are the most vulnerable as they are very sensitive and afraid of everything, they are prone to have stress, panic and even a heart attack. While our colleagues from Holland worked ‘in the field’ like we did in Delfa, the percentage of the mammals saved was not very high. But not so long ago, they set up a very good in-patient facility, and the treatment of seriously ill porpoises became much more effective.


- You’ve been dreaming for a long time of an in-patient facility to save dolphins...

- Yes, we have been talking about an in-patient facility for many years. The treatment center is needed to give medical aid to injured wild cetaceans, as well as to help them recover from their illness and release dolphins into the wild after their living in captivity.

At the outset of our work, we were allowed to use part of the water area of the Imeretinsky Port free of charge to make an enclosure. But at that time, we did not have money yet, we started fund raising, collected a more or less sufficient sum of money, but the owner and management organization changed. So now, we are working again on resolving issues about the possibility of setting up an in-patient facility and its location. And this is our dream and goal which we are going to achieve.

Expert opinion

Timofey Barabashin, Deputy Director of the of All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography’s Department of Aquatic Bioresources and their Habitats:

In our country, dolphins, like other marine mammals, are listed in the Red Data Book of Russia; catching dolphins is prohibited. The population of common porpoises (inhabiting the Azov and the Black Seas), which are most often accidentally entangled in fishing nets, is 90,000 animals in the Black Sea. We can say that accidental bycatch does not threaten dolphins. Considering that fish stocks in water bodies are limited, catch quotas are determined by the Federal Agency for Fishery’s VNIRO (Russian Federation Research Institute of Fishery and Oceanography) on the basis of the scientific data. They change from year to year depending on the number of fish. Of course, there is a problem with dolphins accidentally getting caught in flounder nets. At the same time, the fishing industry is important for the region and is a driver of the economic development as it helps in ensuring the country’s food security. There is no alternative to fishing nets for catching flounder. The work on this problem is already in progress, and in accordance with the requirements for fishing, other options for nets with thinner fishing lines are under development. There are no concrete results yet, but the process has been set in motion.