Legal Implications of Dolphin and Human Interactions

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Brief Summary of the Legal Implications of Dolphin and Human Interactions
Ann Linder (2017)

Dolphins have long been a fixture in popular culture due, in part, to their intelligence and similarity to humans. People are drawn to these animals and will go to great lengths to see them, learn about them, and interact with them. While this relationship to humans has helped protect dolphins, it has also put them at risk and interfered with their natural behaviors.

Swim-with-the-dolphins programs have become increasingly popular in recent years. However, new research is showing that human interaction may be harming wild dolphin populations in Hawaii and elsewhere. Recently, several regulatory agencies including the National Marine Fisheries Services, which governs wild dolphin swims, and the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, that oversees captive dolphin encounters, have proposed new rules for human-dolphin interaction. In addition, research, therapy, and other activities involving dolphins are federally regulated. Each of these topic is very controversial and has proven a challenge for regulators with constituents divided on both sides.

Overview of the Legal Implications of Dolphin and Human Interactions
Ann Linder (2017)


Human interest in dolphins has grown in recent decades, spurred on by the appearances in film and popular culture as well as new research on dolphin cognition. People have developed a strong affinity for dolphins in part due to their similarities to humans. Many feel a natural connection with the species that gives birth to live young, plays, and lives in complex social groups. A vibrant tourist industry has developed around human desire to connect and interact with dolphins.

Our affection for the species has afforded dolphins additional protections, but it has also come at a cost. Research on the negative impacts of human interaction has inspired new regulatory changes and raised questions about the proper balance between nature and human interests.

Dolphins have been held in captivity in the United States since the 1930’s. Today, they are held at marine parks and aquaria across the country where they participate in shows, feeding events, or swim-with-the-dolphin programs. In recent years, questions have grown about the ethics of keeping dolphins in captive environments. Blackfish and other documentaries have stirred public opinion on the subject, precipitating boycotts, protests, and other forms of activism. The captive dolphin industry has fiercely disputed suggestions that captivity has negative effects on the animal’s welfare. They maintain that the educational benefit of displaying the animals strongly outweighs the costs.

The Animal Plant Heath Inspection Service, housed within the Department of Agriculture, is charged with drafting and enforcing regulations governing the care of captive dolphins under the Animal Welfare Act. However, many feel that both the rules and their enforcement have been lax. Calls have grown for APHIS to update the requirements for dolphin housing and care. In 2016, APHIS submitted a new proposed rule changing the requirements for facilities that offer captive swim-with the dolphins programs. In the past, strong lobbying influence from the industry had stymied efforts to regulate these programs.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act is the primary piece of legislation protecting wild dolphins. The MMPA is enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Services a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the Department of Commerce. The MMPA makes it a crime to “harass” dolphins among other things. A new proposed rule issued by NMFS for public comment in 2016 places heavy restrictions on swimming with wild spinner dolphins. The proposal was based on research indicating that Hawaii’s growing dolphin tourism industry may be interfering with essential behavior of spinner dolphins such as breeding, eating, and sleeping. However, it was met with heavy opposition from the state’s tourism industry. The current debate in Hawaii serves as a microcosm for larger questions of how eco-tourism may be negatively affecting the animals it purports to protect.

Recent proposals by APHIS and NMFS suggest that agencies may be feeling additional public pressure to regulate dolphins—a departure from what has long been considered a regulatory void in this area.


Related articles

Biological Summary of the Dolphin, Lauren Tierney (2010).

Detailed Discussion of Dolphin Drive Hunts, Lauren Tierney, Animal Legal & Historical Center (2010).

Caring for Dolphins, Otters, and Octopuses: Speciesism in the Regulation of Zoos and Aquariums, Marla K. Conley, 15 Animal L. 237 (2008).

Related cases

Dolphin-related cases

Related laws

Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), 16 USC 1361 - 1421h


Related Links

Web Center Links:

Topic Introduction on Dolphin Protection under the MMPA

External Links:

Protective Regulations for Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NOAA’s proposed regulations for Hawaiian spinner dolphins was submitted for notice and comment in 2016. The period for public comments closed on October 23, 2016. At the time of this writing, a final rule is expected to be issued in late 2017. (81 F.R. 57854, available at

Spradlin et al., Interactions Between the Public and Wild Dolphins in the United States Biological Concerns and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals (November 1999), available at

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