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Marine debris is a chronic problem killing wildlife. A cop and a dolphin defy the odds

A young Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, like these pictured above, was freed from an illegal gill net in Biscayne Bay by Miami-Dade Marine Patrol Officer Nelson Silva last month.
Miami Herald archives
A young Atlantic bottlenose dolphin, like these pictured above, was freed from an illegal gill net in Biscayne Bay by Miami-Dade Marine Patrol Officer Nelson Silva last month.

On a Friday morning last month, Miami-Dade Marine Patrol Officer Nelson Silva was finishing up paperwork in his office when the Pelican Harbor Marina manager appeared at his door to report something suspicious floating offshore.

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The manager could see it moving, but couldn’t make out what it was.

“Unfortunately, this past year has been really bad for the manatees. So I thought, oh, it’s another manatee,” said Silva.

Silva has spent 17 of his 27 years with the Miami-Dade Police Department in marine patrol and has come across plenty of dead wildlife in urban Biscayne Bay: birds tangled in fishing line, manatees mauled by boats and fish felled by pollution.

The last year has been especially brutal to manatees. More than 1,100 have died, including more than 360 in the Indian River Lagoon where many likely starved after widespread seagrass loss.

Marine debris, Silva said, is a chronic problem. Derelict ‘ghost’ traps, fishing line, anchor rope and a host of other objects tormenting marine life litter the bay. Miami-Dade plans on spending $500,000 over the coming year to combat the problem.
Much of the debris between Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, according to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection survey of reef clean-ups over three years, comes from fishing.

“Especially a lot of fishing line,” Silva said. “At high tide is when we really see a lot.”

But as Silva motored about a half-mile offshore, even he was surprised by what he encountered: a young dolphin, ensnared in an illegal gill net, from its tail to its bottle nose.

As he pulled up, Silva said he worried he’d arrived too late “because he's just sitting still there.”

Then the young dolphin, between 3 and 4 feet long, gave a quick snort from its blowhole. A video from his body camera later posted by MDPD shows Silva swing into action: he grabs a gaff to hook the net, hauls the dolphin up to the boat and whips out his pocket knife to begin cutting.

Silva later said he wanted to work quickly because he could see the monofilament already cutting into the dolphin’s head.

“So that’s where I started to cut the net,” he said.

Silva makes a few cuts before the panicky dolphin jerks free, cutting Silva’s hand on the line. Silva follows it in his patrol boat, hooks the net a second time, talking to the dolphin the entire time. The dolphin jerks away again.

“I had to make sure that he was calm because if he got away,” he said, “I wasn’t going to be able to help him.”

Silva grabs the net again and begins cutting. Within seconds, the dolphin is free.

“He took off,” Silva said. “You can actually see the trail he left in the water in the video.”

In all his years on the water, Silva said the dolphin rescue will rank among his proudest moments.

“I've saved lots of lives out there. I’ve pulled people off burning boats and [out of] stranded canoes,” he said. “But this was a first. This one felt really, really, really good.”

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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