Environmental officials warn against harmful dolphin feeding

June 29, 2011 

In this file photo, a dolphin swims along the side of a boat in Broad Creek. Local wildlife experts and scientists urge people to keep their distance from dolphins and manatees, two mammals frequently seen in local waters. A federal law makes feeding or harassing the sea creatures illegal.

FILE, THE ISLAND PACKET

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Each summer, an illegal and harmful trend returns to Beaufort County -- the feeding of dolphins in the wild.

Wayne McFee, wildlife biologist with the National Ocean Service, said the practice is reported throughout coastal South Carolina but is "extremely bad" in the Hilton Head Island area, where dolphins are often found frolicking in Broad Creek.

Feeding dolphins violates federal law and puts them at risk of being hit by boat propellers. It changes their foraging behavior and causes them to beg, and it leads to health problems when they are fed things like dead fish and human food, McFee said.

"It's also a hazard to humans because animals being fed can get aggressive," McFee said.

Guides with local eco-tours -- the "eyes on the water" who usually call in violations -- have recently spotted people feeding dolphins from boats, said Al Segars, veterinarian with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.

McFee said it appears incidents of dolphin-feeding will be on par with the yearly average of five to 10.

The chance of law enforcement catching people feeding dolphins, however, is slim, Segars said.

The National Ocean Service forwards reports of illegal feedings to the National Marine Fisheries service, which has only has a few enforcement officers based in Charleston, McFee said.

Segars believes public awareness is the key to reducing the practice. Segars said DNR has had workshops asking eco-tour guides to help educate visitors and report violations.

"You get somebody from Kansas who went to SeaWorld that one time, and they probably don't know you shouldn't feed the dolphins," Segars said.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/blufftonblogip.

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