Officials Crack Down on Wild Dolphin Feeding

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PANAMA CITY BEACH Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are cracking down on wild dolphin feeding.

Because of a backlog of cases, companies are just now being fined for incidents that happened years ago.

The Panama City area is still the number one hotspot for dolphin-feeding in the southeast.

NOAA officials say dolphin-feeding in Panama City Beach has been an on-going problem for twenty years.

It's a federal crime according to a law passed in 1972 called the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

But that hasn't stopped some businesses and boaters.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Stan Kirkland says, "Feeding dolphins is illegal for a reason. It makes beggars, it makes panhandlers out of the dolphins. It's not natural behavior."

Last year the FWC pushed for more awareness on this seemingly innocent behavior.

Officials call it "killing the dolphins with love".

Wild dolphins who are fed more than a few times start associating humans with food, often approaching boaters with no regard to their safety.

Officials say dolphins can also forget how to hunt for themselves.

NOAA Dolphin Conservation Coordinator Stacey Horstman says, "They're also teaching their young and other dolphins the same risky behaviors, so a calf for example may not grow up learning how to hunt on its own. Instead it's learning to depend and rely on people."

NOAA officials surveyed the businesses in our area to see if their efforts to raise awareness have been successful.

Horstman says, "Interestingly, almost half of the commercial businesses knew it was illegal to feed dolphins but they didn't know or agree that it was harmful."

Since 2009, five local businesses have been fined for feeding dolphins.

We reached out to them all for comment but received no response.

While postures like this might entice people to feed dolphins, officials say think twice.

Horstman adds, "That's what we call a begging posture. That is not what we call a natural wild dolphin behavior. That's a behavior you often see in captivity because they've been trained to station like that if you will. The dolphins in Panama City are doing that because they've been fed for so long."

Dolphin feeding is also a problem for fishermen, as dolphins have been known to steal from fishing boats that they are no longer afraid to approach.