California Coastal Dolphin Project

California Coastal Dolphin Project

The California Coastal Dolphin Project examines the population ecology of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) in California inshore waters with particular emphasis on Monterey Bay. The project started in 1990 as part of Dr. Daniela Maldini’s MS thesis and continues today under her guidance.

During the present century, coastal bottlenose dolphins have been absent from the sighting record for the central California coast and northward. Based on strandings and natural history studies, the normal range for coastal bottlenose dolphins in California was considered to be from Point Conception southward, and sightings between Point Conception and Point Dume were considered rare before 1982-83. Historical records depict a rather different picture. A bottlenose dolphin skull was collected in Monterey Bay in 1871, another, estimated to be 50-100 years old, was recovered in San Francisco Bay in 1958, and a third skull was dredged in Richmond, Contra Costa County, in 1980, indicating the presence of this species in central California waters in the past. Records unfortunately do not indicate whether this presence was due to a temporary shift in range or if it was indicative of long-term residency.

The reappearance of coastal bottlenose dolphins along the central California coast, as far north as Monterey Bay, was attributed to the 1982-83 El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event, which caused massive movements of traditionally warmer water prey to northern latitudes and may have affected the dolphins foraging efficiency, causing them to move further north. Maldini-Feinholz determined that bottlenose dolphins found in Monterey Bay were part of a larger population inhabiting coastal California waters from Ensenada, Mexico, to at least as far north as San Francisco; this is among the widest known ranges occupied by the same population of bottlenose dolphins. Transit times between San Diego and Monterey Bay, an 837-kilometer one-way trip, ranged from 66 to 74 days, but no data is currently available on the periodicity with which individuals travel within this range. This information would greatly enhance the possibility of understanding the ecological significance of these movements and their relationship to food availability or temperature changes.

The current best estimate of the number of coastal bottlenose dolphins between San Diego and San Francisco is only 206 individuals, although the overall population size may be up to about 450-500 animals. Clearly, due to the small size of this population and its coastal habitat, there is cause for concern about its conservation status (currently classified as “data deficient” NOAA 2007). In order to ensure proper management in the long-term, studies need to be conducted to monitor population trends and status, as well as to clarify threats.

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