It's been a tough year for dolphins, not only in the Florida Panhandle but across the Southeast.
Locally, there have been 18 deaths in the first four months of 2019.
That's three more than were recorded in all of 2018. Most of the animals were found on the shore of Choctawhatchee Bay, although a handful were found on beaches along the Gulf of Mexico.
"We've all had high numbers this year," said Brittany Baldricka, marine mammal stranding coordinator for the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge. She said she and other coordinators from a wider region speak once a month to share data.
"We can't tell the cause of death by just doing a necropsy," she said. Instead, they send tissue samples to a lab that examines the cells of different organs to determine whether the animal had an acute or chronic illness, or just died of old age.
Baldricka said some of the stranding partners to the west have seen dead dolphins with a sheepshead —a larger type of native fish — lodged in their throats. Experts speculate that red tide decimated populations of the dolphins' normal diet, and that the animals are turning to fish they wouldn't normally eat.
Freshwater intrusion because of high rainfall can decrease the salinity of the dolphins' home waters, which also leads to problems.
Baldricka said it wasn't immediately clear what had caused the death of any of the animals her team has found this year. Two had evidence of human interaction, but in neither case could it be definitively determined that the interaction had caused the deaths.
One had a "gotcha hook" in its first stomach. Dolphins have three.
The other had clearly had some type of line wrapped around its tail that caused damage, but the line was gone when the team found the body.
Later, they heard from an organization that reported seeing that dolphin entangled in line before it died. They said they didn't know who to notify, but had seen it alive two days before it was found dead.
"We want to let them and other dolphin tour boats know if they have ever seen any boat strikes or entanglement to call us immediately," Baldricka said. She also asked folks to call in any sightings of dolphins with unusual marks on their skin.
Although teams will not remove an injured or entangled dolphin from the water, in some cases and with the proper permitting, they will enter the water and, for example, remove fishing line or hooks.
The public should not approach an injured dolphin, however.
Baldricka asks people to call 650-1880 and to stay 150 feet away from an injured or ill marine animal. Never push a stranded animal back into the water.