NOAA 2002-R132
Contact: Gordon Helm
NOAA News Releases 2002
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Boaters and Tourists Advised to Obey Law, Appreciate Dolphins from a Distance

Boaters and tourists enjoying coastal waters this summer are encouraged by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to admire wild dolphins from a distance. Feeding or harassing the animals is against federal marine mammal protection law, and may lead to harm or injury to either the animals or humans.

NOAA's law enforcement and protected resources offices are spreading the word following an increase in complaints of dolphin feeding and harassment in recent weeks. NOAA is an agency of the Commerce Department.

"Dolphins are extremely charismatic animals," said Special Agent Andrew Emerson of NOAA Enforcement Southeast, a part of the NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service. "Because they look friendly, people want to get very close and treat a dolphin more like a pet instead of the powerful wild animal it is. It is best to view dolphins in a responsible way without feeding or petting."

Many boaters attempt to interact with dolphins by petting, feeding or teasing the animals. These actions are illegal and compromise the dolphins' safety and willingness to forage for food. Some dolphins begin to aggressively seek food from humans after receiving frequent hand feedings.

"It's hard to ignore a dolphin that comes up to the boat seemingly begging for food or a pat. That is a learned begging behavior, not a natural dolphin instinct. Dolphin populations are generally healthy along our coasts and are not starving for food," said Kathy Wang, a marine mammal biologist with NOAA Fisheries Protected Resources - Southeast. "When people regularly approach a dolphin with food or for petting, it causes the animal to lose its natural wariness toward people and it can become aggressive. Also, a dolphin's new-found comfort with people makes it more likely to get hit by boat propellers or the boat itself."

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 protects dolphins as well as all other marine mammals. Under the MMPA it is illegal to harass or feed marine mammals in the wild. Violations can result in civil penalties of up to $12,000 and criminal fines of up to $20,000 and jail time.

Not only is it illegal to interact with dolphins, but it is also dangerous for both humans and the animals involved. Dolphins habituated to receiving handouts learn to approach boats and can sustain serious propeller injuries. Also, some have become aggressive when seeking food and have been known to bite when teased.

"NOAA Fisheries Dolphin Watching Guidelines" recommends a safe distance of no less than 50 yards to observe the animals. Telephoto lenses or binoculars can be used to obtain a good view, but overall viewing time should be limited to 30 minutes or less and loud noises and abrupt movements should be avoided.

When dolphins approach boats, the NOAA guidelines recommend that the boat operators maintain a steady course and avoid abrupt changes in direction or speed to avoid running over or injuring the animals. Boats that are stationary should remain so until the dolphins leave.

In January 2002, NOAA Fisheries released the agency's official policy on interactions with wild marine mammals. The policy prohibits interacting with wild marine mammals and encourages viewing marine mammals in a manner that does not harass the animals. "Harassment" as defined in the MMPA can involve acts of pursuit, torment or annoyance that have the potential to injure or disrupt the behavioral patterns of wild marine mammals.

"Admire dolphins from a distance. It's safer for people and dolphins," Emerson said.

NOAA Fisheries and NOAA Enforcement operate a toll-free hotline at 1-800-853-1964 to report harassment violations and sightings of injured or stranded dolphins.

NOAA Fisheries is dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation's living marine resources through scientific research, management, enforcement and the conservation of marine mammals and other protected marine species and their habitat.

To learn more about NOAA Fisheries and responsible marine mammal viewing, please visit