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Dolphin Harassment Continues in Florida Panhandle, Tour Boat Operator Fined

Human interactions with dolphins can alter the animals behavior and put them at risk for potential harm.Photo: GMckenna

On July 8, 2014, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrative Law Judge upheld a fine issued by NOAA’s Office of General Counsel, Enforcement Section, and assessed a civil penalty of $4,500 on a Panama City business and its boat captain for their role in feeding wild dolphins. 

The incident occurred off of Panama City’s Shell Island, an area long known as a hotbed of illegal interactions with wild dolphins. This issue has been a concern for decades and NOAA first prosecuted a commercial operator in 1999 for similar violations. Over the past 2 years, NOAA has charged numerous other operators and their staff for feeding and harassing dolphins. 

Tracy Dunn, special agent in charge of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, Southeast Division, noted that “the harassment of marine mammals is not only harmful to the animal, it is unlawful and could result in penalties for anyone engaging in this behavior. If you see this type of activity, we urge you to contact NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement at 1-800-853-1964.”

NOAA has conducted extensive outreach in key areas to educate tour boat operators and the public about the growing problem associated with feeding wild dolphins. Unfortunately, some people still engage in these illegal and inappropriate activities, endangering the animals’ welfare, as well as their own. In Panama City, years of illegal feeding have caused wild dolphins to readily approach boats for handouts, which tour businesses exploit to offer dangerous opportunities for their customers to swim with these wild animals. 

Stacey Horstman, bottlenose dolphin conservation coordinator for the NOAA Fisheries Southeast Region, emphasized the negative impact these human interactions can have on wild dolphins. “A dolphin is harmed each time someone tries to interact with it in any way, including feeding, attempting to feed, and swimming.  Whether we see the consequences now or later, a fed dolphin is a dead dolphin.”

Feeding wild dolphins can cause the animal to lose their natural wariness of people/boats and suffer serious and fatal injuries from boat strikes. Photo: Sarasota Dolphin Research Program

When dolphins are fed, they learn to associate people with food, losing their natural wariness of people and boats. They put themselves in dangerous situations by readily approaching people, boats, and fishing gear looking for a meal. They even try to take bait and catch off fishermen’s lines as a result of these learned behaviors. Dolphins then suffer injury or death from boat strikes, entanglements in fishing gear, ingestion of fishing gear or contaminated food, or intentional injury by fishermen frustrated with these changed behaviors. The people who engage in these activities are also putting themselves at significant safety risk. There have been several reports over the years in Panama City and elsewhere of wild dolphins biting, ramming, or otherwise injuring people who try to feed or swim with them.

Agents from NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission witnessed such activities during a joint undercover investigation in Panama City, Florida. Following the investigation, NOAA’s Office of the General Counsel, Enforcement Section, issued a Notice of Violation and Assessment of Administrative Penalty to Blue Dolphin Tours and Captain Shaun Gunter for their role in feeding wild dolphins. The judge found that “[The respondent’s] attempts to feed dolphin on this occasion contributed directly and significantly to harming the wild dolphin population in Panama City, a population that has been plagued with illegal interference for many years.”

Solving the problem in Panama City will require a true commitment to dolphin protection and conservation. NOAA urges everyone to stop harmful interactions with wild dolphins. Tour boat operators and the general public will continue to be held accountable if they are found to have illegally interacted with a wild dolphin, pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Anyone in violation of the Act can face civil penalties of up to $11,000 and criminal penalties up to $100,000 and 1 year in jail.

If you have any information relating to dolphin harassment, please contact NOAA’s Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.

For more information about why it is illegal and harmful to feed wild dolphins, visit www.dontfeedwilddolphins.org.

Press or Media Inquiries should be directed to either Kim Amendola, Public Affairs at NOAA Fisheries Southeast Region (727-551-5707 or Kim.Amendola@noaa.gov) or John Thibodeau, communications specialist for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement (301-427-8234 or John.Thibodeau@noaa.gov).