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Dolphinfish Research Program
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General Movement Patterns

Dolphin Movements by Geographic Location

U.S. East Coast Movements - July 2020

Since May, 668 dolphin have been tagged along the U.S. East Coast for the Dolphinfish Research Program (DRP), and 24 of those fish have been recaptured as of today.  This represents an overall recapture rate of 3.5%, which is high compared to previous years (2.1% in 2018 and 2.2% in 2019).  Considering only fish tagged and released in June in the Florida Keys over the past three years, the recapture rate for those fish was 2.6% in 2018, 2.9% in 2019, and 4.5% this year.  What can explain the high recapture rate this year for dolphin tagged in the Florida Keys?  Does this mean more anglers are fishing this year? That there are less dolphin or dolphin habitat (sargassum) moving through the region? Or, is it a combination of those factors?  We have heard reports from some fishermen that the pandemic has reduced the number of trips they make in a year, but for others, they are fishing more than ever.  We have also received mixed reports about the run of dolphin through the Florida Straits in that it seems the dolphin did not show up and there was a lack of large sargassum patches.  Another factor that could explain the high recovery rate is proper tagging protocols followed by DRP participating vessels.  By tagging vessel, WamJam has a 5.9% recovery rate with 5 of the 84 fish they tagged in June recovered.  Killin’ Time II has a 5.1% recovery rate (17 recaptures from 327 tagged and released).  Last year, WamJam had a .7% recovery rate and Killin’ Time II had 5.3% recovery rate.  Therefore, the uptick in higher overall recovery rate could be simply be due to better tagging protocols used by WamJam.  But, another vessel, Slam Em’ Back Captained by Jay Reid, only tagged six fish and one of those fish was recovered (a 16% recovery rate).  Data such as these collected in association with the DRP are useful in comparing past, present, and future trends for dolphin and are only made possible through the dedication of anglers such as you. 

Figure 1 - July 2020 Florida Keys to South Florida dolphinfish mark and recapture locations and minimum straightline arrows between sites. Numbers indicate days at liberty. Red numbers indicate recapture locations for fish that were tagged in the same school at the same location. The 200-meter bathymetric contour is indicated with a yellow arrow.
Figure 2 - July 2020 Florida dolphinfish mark and recapture locations and minimum straightline arrows between recapture sites off North Carolina and New Jersey. Numbers indicate days at liberty. The 200-meter bathymetric contour is indicated with a yellow arrow.
Florida Keys and South Florida - June 2020

Over the past month, 451 reported tag deployments were logged from 16 participating vessels.  Of those releases, 28% were larger than 20″ (legal limit off eastern FL, GA, and SC), which shows the dedication of many anglers to dolphinfish conservation through this tagging program.  In June 2019, a total of 38 vessels tagged and released 608 fish with 19% larger than the South Atlantic Bight minimum size.  While tag deployments are not as high as last June, the recent uptick in tagging activity still led to several recorded movements, and to date the program has received 8 recoveries.  Seven were generated by Captain Don Gates and the Killin’ Time II fishing team and one by Captain’s Jimbo and Rick Thomas aboard the Thomas Flyer.  Along the eastern Florida shelf this month, the average movement rate for dolphin was 24.69 miles per day (mpd), very similar to last year’s 21.69 mpd.  Together, these movements rates are between 55% to 60% slower than 2018’s average (55.46 mpd) and are also among the slowest eastern Florida movement rates observed in this 19 year study.

Dolphinfish Research Program tag and release
Image - Captain Don Gates releases one of 319 dolphinfish he and his team tagged and released off the Lower Florida Keys in June 2020.
Figure 1 - June 2020 Florida Keys to South Florida dolphinfish mark and recapture locations and minimum straightline arrows between sites. Numbers indicate days at liberty. The 200-meter bathymetric contour is indicated with a yellow arrow. The yellow number with astericks indicates a tag recovered in the stomach contents of a large bull.
June 2020 Florida Keys dolphinfish mark and recapture locations and minimum straightline arrows between sites. Numbers indicate days at liberty. The 200-meter bathymetric contour is indicated with a yellow arrow.
2020 Dolphin Movements in the Keys

Why are there slower movement rates?  There is no question that dolphin are influenced by oceanography but correctly modeling how closely dolphin do or do not orient with major ocean currents is a difficult task.  The Straits of Florida, however, afford a unique geographic region where one of the world’s most powerful western boundary currents, the Gulf Stream, flows northward along the eastern Florida shelf and ultimately toward the north Atlantic.  The Straits of Florida is also the region where 68.9% (n = 16,030) of all dolphinfish tag deployments have occurred for the Dolphinfish Research Program (DRP) through the end of 2017.  Of those deployments, 236 fish were recovered off eastern Florida, with days at liberty < 60 days within the Straits of Florida.  While there are a number of different analyses that can be done using these data, recently, we reached out to the Marine Program Leader and Lead Meteorologist Chris Rothwell at the Key West branch of the National Weather Service who, working with Ph.D. candidate Caitlin Dirkes at Florida State University, has produced preliminary results on the climatology of the offshore position of the Florida Current/Gulf Stream (in nautical miles) from eight key reef points in the Straits of Florida (From west to east: Dry Tortugas Light, Cosgrove Shoal Light, Sand Key Light, Looe Key Light, Sombrero Key Light versus Alligator Reef Light, Molasses Reef Light, and Carysfort Reef Light).  In other words, they are responsible for producing the following text and graphical report on the approximate shoreward edge of the Gulf Stream.  One of their preliminary findings is that the north wall of the Gulf Stream is generally closer to the shore/reef in winters and summers, with greater variability for western sites within the Straits of Florida.  Based on these observations and preliminary results, our program intends to compare dolphinfish release sites and movements within the Keys relative to the seasonal and interannual variability in Gulf Stream position along this reef tract.  The question is do dolphin move faster if tagged and released well within the main flow of the Gulf Stream.  Over the years we have documented an overall northern movement trend for dolphinfish along the U.S. East Coast.  Many recaptures over the past few years, however, have led us to focus on the variability in movement speeds for dolphin along the Lower Florida Keys.  Last year, a number of lingering movements were observed and recently John Anderson of Lexington, South Carolina, added another to the list.  He recaptured a Killin’ Time II tagged dolphin 6 days after and west of its release site.  Yet another recent slow movement is the fish recaptured by Camron Jaques, 5 days after it was released by Killin’ Time II, while fishing out of Hawks Cay off Duck Key.  Connecting the release and recapture sites puts this straightline movement rate at just over 10 miles per day.  Yet, two days after Camron reported this fish, Alejandro Batista, while fishing off Islamorada recaptured a different Killin’ Time II tagged fish less than a day after it was a released off Cudjoe Key.  Does this variability relate at all to the variability in position of the northern edge of the Gulf Stream current in the Straits of Florida with relation to where these fish were caught, tagged, and released?  Stay tuned for future updates as we delve further into this analysis.  A special thanks to all the anglers who reported recoveries of tagged dolphin in Florida this June.

Reference - Dr. Caitlin Dirkes and Chris Rothwell - Accessed June 2020 -
2019 Dolphin Movements in the Keys

For the first time ever, Captain Don Gates and the Killin’ Time II Fishing Team recovered a tagged fish!  One would think that after they have tagged and released 3,357 fish this event would have happened sooner.  Nonetheless, the recovery occurred 5 days after they tagged the fish approximately 10.74 miles south of where they released it.  This represents a 2.14 mile per day movement rate and represents one of many lingering movements of dolphin observed in June off the Lower and Middle Keys.  In the figure below, the majority of Killin’ Time II’s June recoveries in the Keys represented movements that were very slow.  While the amount of fishing pressure can lead to fish being recaptured sooner which can be misleading if dispersal distances are low, the fact that a number of fish were recaptured 3-5 days after being released in the same general area is an interesting pattern to note.  Even when you consider their recaptures to the Upper Keys and central Florida (figure below) you can see that many of the dolphin moving through the area were not racing through the Straits as we saw last June.  Click here to see last June’s movement analysis.  What needs to be done is an in-depth analysis of all eastern Florida shelf movements based on the trajectory of the Florida Current and the strength and position of the Gulf Stream.  Additional correlates can include, but are not limited to, the movement of sargassum through the Straits, SSTs, chlorophyll a, etc.  With more than 300 Florida in-state recoveries generated from anglers participating in the DRP since 2002, the amount of information gleaned from an in-depth analysis of this information can lead to better understanding seasonal trends in dolphin abundance, movements, and life history traits in the Florida Straits system.  Help us fund this analysis by supporting the Dolphinfish Research Program.  Donate what you can today so we can allocate resources to undertake this important analysis.

Figure 3 - June 2019 Florida Keys to South Florida dolphinfish mark and recapture locations and minimum straightline arrows between sites. Numbers indicate days at liberty.
Figure 4 - June 2019 Florida Keys dolphinfish mark and recapture locations and minimum straightline arrows between sites. Numbers indicate days at liberty.
Figure 5 - Florida instate dolphinfish minimum straightline movement arrows between mark and recapture sites from 2002 to 2017.
2019 Dolphinfish Research Program Movements Recap

In 2019, 51 dolphin movements have been archived for the Dolphinfish Research Program (DRP).  This is the third highest amount of movements ever recorded in one year for the program.  The top two years in terms of movements recorded were in 2007 and 2009, when 68 and 56, movements were logged, respectively.  Our most recent dolphin recovery was reported at the end of September by Lee Rose of Frankford, DE.  He recaptured a dolphin near Poor Man’s Canyon aboard the charter vessel Stalker 14 days after the fish was tagged and released by Captains Chris and David Jobes of the Pair of Docs fishing team.  Youth angler Will Jobes caught and tagged the fish.  This is the only in-region MAB movement logged this year and represents the longest southwesterly movement ever logged for the program in the MAB (see figure below).  The greatest observed time at large for a dolphin recovery in the MAB region is 56 days and no movements have ever been generated outside of the waters near Maryland or New Jersey.  With the DRP now based in Newport, Rhode Island, we aspire to change this next summer with the deployment of a few satellite tags.  Check out the information below to learn about more general movement patterns observed throughout the history of the DRP.

In an ongoing review of data collected with Dolphinfish Research Program (DRP) from 2002-2017, dolphin movement linkages between geographic locations are beginning to emerge.  This brief article is to serve as a visual review of some of the main movement linkages observed since the DRP started.

With more than 23,000 fish tagged by the end of 2017 the 571 recoveries generated from that 16-year effort has led to the world’s first look at dolphin movement linkages within the WCA by location.  In Florida alone, more than 236 in-state movements stand to reveal detailed movement dynamics by season and location, an analysis that is ongoing.  Below is a slideshow of some of the movement linkages observed to date.

U.S. East Coast Return Migrants


Click here to read an article about U.S. East Coast return dolphin migrants.

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