NOAA 95-R142

Contact:  Scott Smullen                       FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE  
          (301) 713-2370                      8/24/95


Florida boaters who encourage the impressive antics of wild dolphins by feeding or swimming with the animals harm the dolphins and themselves -- and may be fined for breaking the law, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today.

According to reports received by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, recreational boaters and swimmers have been injured when illegally feeding or swimming with wild dolphins off Florida. People have been sent to the hospital for stitches or medical attention due to severe bites and body strikes during interactions.

"Dolphins have a reputation for being friendly to humans, but the fact remains they are powerful, wild animals that can be very aggressive," said Nancy Foster, deputy director of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service. "Feeding and swimming with dolphins may appear to be fun for humans, but can be very harmful to both the dolphins and the people."

Although commercial dolphin-feeding cruises were effectively stopped in October 1993 following a federal court ruling, NMFS officials are concerned about recreational boaters and others who continue to feed and swim with dolphins. NMFS officials are particularly concerned about a recent increase in feeding activities in Ft. Walton Beach, Denton, Panama City, Sarasota and Key West. The fisheries service and local authorities have stepped up enforcement in those areas and will soon post federal "no-feeding" signs and issue fines to people caught feeding or swimming with the animals.

Foster said that feeding these marine mammals can make them less able -- or willing -- to search for food on their own. In addition, she said, food, if it's non-natural or contaminated, can pose a serious health risk and even death to the dolphins.

NMFS officials have reports of people seen feeding dolphins beer, hot dogs and candy bars -- items Foster called "totally inappropriate and harmful."

Even more threatening, said Foster, is the danger that feeding or swimming with the dolphins will cause them to become habituated to humans and make them lose their natural wariness as wild animals.

"Dolphins that become desensitized toward humans are highly at risk of getting entangled in commercial fishing nets, hit by boat propellers, exposed to polluted water, or being intentionally harassed by people," Foster said.

Recently, a dolphin that may have been begging for food from humans jumped into a boat and was killed by the impact. Feeding wild dolphins has become an increasing and on-going problem since the late 1980's in many southeast coastal areas, including Florida, Texas and the Carolinas.

Dolphins fed by people are also in danger of being perceived as "nuisance" animals. Increasingly, recreational and commercial fishermen in Florida have complained that dolphins have learned to take fish off their lines. The fishermen are unable to catch the fish they want and the dolphins run the risk of ingesting baited hooks. Dolphins that have stranded dead have been found with hooks and fishing line in their stomachs.

Scientists and conservationists are concerned that in the future, there will be public outcry to remove -- or even kill -- dolphins considered to be a nuisance. In the 1970's there was a similar problem in Yellowstone National Park with the public feeding wild bears.

A report by the Australian government and American scientists was published in 1994 on the famous Monkey Mia resort in Western Australia where the public is legally allowed to give handouts to certain dolphins. Researchers found the offspring of dolphins that take handouts are less likely to survive than the offspring of dolphins that do not interact with people. These studies show that more than 70 percent of the infant dolphins born to mothers that take fish from people have died.

NMFS law enforcement officers have been working with the Florida Marine Patrol and the U.S. Coast Guard to educate recreational boaters and others who may be unaware of the fact that feeding and swimming-with wild dolphins is both harmful and illegal.

"Most people know that feeding or swimming with wild dolphins is illegal but they don't seem to understand or want to believe that it's harmful to the animals and can also be harmful to humans. People need to respect these animals and let them be wild," said Special Agent Bob Spraitz of the NMFS Enforcement office in St. Petersburg, Fla. "We have numerous reports on file of dolphins acting aggressively towards people."

In December 1994, a dolphin off the coast of Brazil seriously injured a man who witnesses say was harassing the dolphin. The man subsequently died from those injuries.

On Oct. 29, 1993, NOAA won a court case that reinstated a federal regulation prohibiting dolphin-feeding activities in U.S. waters. Violation of this regulation carries stiff civil and criminal penalties with fines ranging between $10,000-$20,000. In 1994, NMFS submitted to Congress a comprehensive report documenting the history and problems of feeding wild dolphins.

Dolphins and other marine mammals such as whales, seals and sea lions have been protected since 1972 by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Feeding and swimming with any wild marine mammal is considered to be a "take" and "harassment" under the MMPA and is prohibited by law.