NOAA 99-R126
Contact: Stephanie Dorezas


NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service reminds people enjoying Florida's coastal waters that it is against federal law to feed and to harass wild dolphins. Since the Memorial Day weekend is the start of the summer tourist season, it is important that people going to the beaches or boating on local waterways be well informed about wild dolphin safety and health concerns, and the federal laws in place to protect the animals.
Dolphin feeding and harassment continues to occur throughout the Southeast. The feeding activity has agency officials worried that the average citizen is unaware that offering a dolphin a handout is harmful to the dolphins, dangerous to people, and illegal under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"We understand that people find it tempting to feed and to interact with wild dolphins. However, people need to realize that feeding wild dolphins is harmful and is therefore illegal under federal law. The best way to protect the dolphins' health and welfare is to observe the animals at a respectful distance of at least 50 yards and to resist feeding them," said Hilda Diaz-Soltero, director of the Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service. "In addition, people need to avoid any activities that risk harassment of the dolphins, such as chasing, touching or swimming with the animals."

Feeding dolphins in the wild is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) because the activity changes the animals' natural behavior in ways that put them at increased risk of injury or death, and may impact their ability or willingness to forage for food. The prohibition on feeding was upheld in 1993 by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and is widely supported by the scientific research and environmental organizations since it is known to be harmful for many species of wildlife.

"We have received reports of people feeding dolphins beer, hot dogs, sandwiches and candy bars," said Diaz-Soltero. "These actions are absolutely inappropriate and harmful to the health and well-being of the dolphins."

An in-depth review conducted by NOAA Fisheries, outside marine mammal experts, and the Marine Mammal Commission, determined that feeding marine mammals in the wild is contrary to the mandates of the MMPA to protect individuals, species and stocks of marine mammals, and alters their behavior in ways that place them at increased risk of injury and death. Repeated exposure to humans and human activities has been correlated with placing these animals at greater risk of incidental interactions with vessels and fishing activities, vandalism, and ingestion of inappropriate and contaminated food items. In addition, feeding may impact their ability or willingness to forage for food, which is of particular concern for young animals who need to learn foraging skills.

NOAA Fisheries is also concerned that "swim-with-dolphin" programs in the wild risk harassing the animals since such programs seek out and interact with dolphins in a manner that has the potential to disturb the animals' behavioral patterns. Swim-with- dolphin activities in Panama City, Fla., are of particular concern because they are either directly facilitated by, or capitalize on, illegal dolphin feeding.

"Swimming with wild dolphins in the Southeast is closely linked to people feeding dolphins," said Trevor Spradlin, a NOAA Fisheries marine mammal biologist. "Truly wild dolphins will not typically hang around and interact with swimmers unless they have been enticed by food. Such activities risk harming wild dolphins."

An additional concern about interactions with wild dolphins is that individual animals may become labeled as "nuisance animals." In the Southeast, this concern is growing as dolphins are being turned into aggressive panhandlers. NOAA Fisheries and local law enforcement officials have received numerous reports of people being injured by dolphins begging for food. Also, increasingly numbers of 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. Scientists have documented cases where dolphins were found dead with hooks and fishing line in their throats or stomachs.

NOAA Fisheries will continue to post warning signs, distribute educational materials and produce a public service announcement to help educate the public and commercial operators about the harmful consequences of interactions with dolphins.