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Dolphin Harassment Leads to Penalties for Fisherman and Tour Boat Companies

It is illegal to harass dolphins under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Offending parties can face fines up to $100,000 and one year in jail.

NOAA’s Enforcement Program continues to see cases of injury and harassment to dolphins in the wild, resulting in federal prosecution.

On February 24, 2014, Brent Buchanan of Bayou La Batre, Alabama, was sentenced to three months home confinement, a $2,500 fine, 200 hours of community service, and three years’ probation for knowingly shooting a dolphin with a shotgun while shrimping in the Mississippi Sound in the summer of 2012. As part of his sentence, Buchanan will help NOAA Fisheries’ Southeast Regional Office of Protected Resources and the Southeast Fisheries Science Center’s Harvesting Systems Unit learn more on how dolphins are interacting with shrimp trawls and develop potential solutions to prevent interactions. 

“We see this a lot – fishermen getting frustrated with dolphins that go after their catch,” said Mark Kinsey, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, Southeast Division. “It’s likely in many cases this is learned behavior due to illegal feeding by the general public,  where the dolphin associates humans with a ‘free lunch’.”

NOAA’s Office of General Counsel has also brought charges against six tour boat operators in the Gulf Coast since 2012 resulting in $35,000 in penalties for harassment of the animals under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Tour boat operators have been known to feed dolphins in an attempt to get the animals to congregate near their vessel.

Gregg Houghaboom, Assistant Special Agent in Charge in the Southeast Division, noted that “[A]ll parties need to abide by the law. This means tour boat operators and the general public must refrain from feeding or harassing dolphins in the wild and fishermen must not use lethal force when they encounter these animals.”

Dolphins are protected under the MMPA, which makes it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal in waters under the jurisdiction of the United States. Feeding marine mammals is also explicitly prohibited under MMPA regulations. The Act protects all species of dolphins, as well as other marine mammals such as whales and seals. Anyone in violation of the Act can face civil penalties of up to $11,000 and criminal penalties up to $100,000 and one year in jail.

Dolphins that are fed by humans learn to associate people with food and put themselves in dangerous situations when they approach people, boats, and fishing gear for food.

Jeff Radonski, Acting Deputy Special Agent in Charge for the Southeast Division, stressed the importance of giving the animals their space, saying “[W]e’re concerned about both dolphin and human safety and are asking for the public’s help by simply leaving wild dolphins alone.”

To help educate the public, NOAA and partners developed an animated Public Service Announcement about why it is illegal and harmful to feed wild dolphins.

Agents from NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement are actively investigating a number of other possible dolphin shootings that have occurred along the northern Gulf coast since 2012. If you have any information relating to dolphin shootings, please contact the violations hotline at 1-800-853-1964.

Story by John Thibodeau, communications specialist for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. To contact him, please call 301-427-8234 or email john.thibodeau@noaa.gov.