Striving Toward Responsible Viewing: An Evaluation of Dolphin-Watch Ecotour Operations in Clearwater, Florida
In the past decade, marine mammal tourism has increased dramatically in the United States. To promote sustainability of this industry while minimizing harassment, NOAA Fisheries has developed guidelines to encourage appropriate viewing practices among boaters. In Clearwater, Florida, NOAA Fisheries is developing a workshop to train commercial tour operators in responsible marine mammal viewing and effective interpretation. To assist in the development process, I evaluated the dolphin-watch tour operations to determine the operators’ compliance with the viewing guidelines, the structure of the interpretation programs of the tours, and dolphin behavior during interactions with tour vessels. During June 2003, I accompanied the tour vessels and recorded a total of 45 interactions between bottlenose dolphins and operators. During these interactions, operators adhered to all the guidelines approximately 60% of the time. The operators maintained complete compliance with the viewing time limit but failed to end encounters when dolphins exhibited possible disturbance behaviors. Operators frequently approached dolphins within 50 yards and used inappropriate techniques to maneuver around dolphins. Many of the operators presented information about basic dolphin biology, but very few included the MMPA regulations, the NOAA viewing guidelines, or other critical components of an effective interpretation program. These results indicate a strong need for the ecotour training workshop in Clearwater. In addition to attendance at the workshop, the development of a code of conduct specific to Clearwater operators would address possible cumulative impacts of the industry and promote self-enforcement. A monitoring program is also needed to manage tour operations and examine the long-term effects of ecotourism on the local bottlenose dolphin population.
DepartmentNicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences
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