||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
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,
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
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.