Ric O'Barry and other AR activists are fined for illegally releasing dolphins back to the wild. NOAA press releases , background and links. 


The Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has filed charges against several dolphin freedom activists for harassing and illegally transporting two captive dolphins in connection with their deliberate release six miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, on May 23, 1996. Alleging multiple violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA assessed a maximum allowable $10,000 for each of the six counts charged, resulting in a total of $60,000 in penalties against those involved.
After the dolphins were dumped off the side of the boat, they were found injured, emaciated, and begging for food from boaters in local marinas, and were rescued by federal biologists with the help of several government agencies and private groups.

Charges have been filed against Richard O'Barry of Coconut Grove, Fla., Lloyd Good, III, of Sugarloaf Key, Fla., Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary, Inc., of Sugarloaf Key, Fla., and the Dolphin Project, Inc., of South Miami, Fla. All four have been charged with failing to notify NOAA prior to the transport of the dolphins.

According to NOAA, the dolphins were transported without prior notification and not for purposes of public display, scientific research, or enhancement or survival of the species or stock. The day after they were dumped overboard and released, one of the dolphins appeared in a congested Key West marina with lacerations and begging for food. The second dolphin, found over 40 miles away almost two weeks after the release, also sustained deep lacerations and was emaciated. After determining that the dolphins were injured and in need of treatment, the agency, with the help of others, rescued and provided veterinary care to the dolphins. Following initial treatment, one dolphin was transported to the U.S. Navy facility in San Diego for rehabilitation. The other dolphin was found to be in considerably worse condition requiring extended rehabilitation, and remains at a Department of Agriculture licensed marine mammal public display facility in the Florida Keys.

Federal officials later seized a third dolphin from the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary, after officials with the Department of Agriculture suspended the facility's license for multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act. The dolphins had been on public display at the Sugarloaf Lodge motel in Sugarloaf Key since 1994. Prior to that, these dolphins were part of the U.S. Navy's marine mammal research program, and had been in captivity since the late 1980's.

According to the agency, in order to protect the health and welfare of marine mammals, any release should be conducted only under a Marine Mammal Protection Act scientific research permit. Applications for such permits are subject to scientific and public review, and would involve the development of a release protocol that addresses important concerns such as whether: (1) a released animal is properly and humanely prepared to live in the wild; (2) long-term follow up monitoring of the animal is conducted; (3) wild marine mammals are affected; and (4) contingency plans are in place if it necessary to rescue a released animal.

"These dolphins were injured, needed medical attention, and could have died. This incident underscores the need to conduct any dolphin release scientifically and with follow-up to ensure the health and welfare of the animals," said Terry Garcia, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA deputy administrator. "Prior to the release, we repeatedly warned these individuals of the risks inherent in releasing dolphins without a scientific research permit. They agreed to apply for a permit but didn't, and released the dolphins without one. A scientific research permit, if issued, would have facilitated the development of a responsible release protocol and authorized any 'take' that could have occurred incidental to a release."

Agency officials said, wildlife experts agree that releasing captive marine mammals has the potential to hurt both the released animals and the wild marine mammals that they encounter. Experts are concerned about the ability of a released animal to hunt for food, defend itself against predators, and avoid interactions with people and boasts. Other concerns include disease transmission and unwanted genetic exchange between a released animal and wild marine mammal stocks, and any behavioral patterns developed in captivity that could affect the social behavior of wild animals as well as the social integration of the released animal.

The parties charged in this case have 30 days in which to respond. If desired, they may request an administrative hearing in which to contest the charges.

Responding to concern about the health and safety of dolphins being held at Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary in Sugarloaf Key, Fla., the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) joined to remove a dolphin from the public display facility on June 7, due to repeated violations of federal animal welfare requirements there.

The former U.S. Navy dolphin known as þJake,þ one of several dolphins displayed at Sugarloaf, was removed following charges that the facility had failed to comply with provisions of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). Since September 1995, APHIS has cited Sugarloaf on several occasions with AWA violations that include the failure to use qualified veterinary personnel, and the failure to conduct necessary physical examinations and blood tests. These violations led the Department of Agriculture to suspend Sugarloaf's AWA license to publicly exhibit dolphins, and to file a complaint seeking both civil penalties and revocation of the facility's license.

NMFS removed Jake under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), that allows for the removal of dolphins held at public display facilities that do not possess a valid AWA license. Sugarloaf's remaining dolphins, "Sugar" and "Molly," remain at the facility. Since both animals were captured from the wild prior to enactment of the MMPA in 1972, the provisions of the statute do not apply to either dolphin.

"It's unfortunate that the Sugarloaf situation escalated to this level, but we felt that actions by the facility seriously jeopardized the welfare of the dolphins there, and left us with no alternative but to remove Jake and place him in a safe environment that offers proper veterinary care," said National Marine Fisheries Service director Rolland Schmitten.

The rescue was a coordinated effort between NMFSþ parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, APHIS, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Florida Marine Patrol, the Monroe County Sheriff's Department, and several nationally- known marine mammal experts and organizations.

Concerns about the welfare of Sugarloaf's dolphins grew in recent weeks amid reports of inadequate care at the facility and reports that Jake's health had deteriorated. Reports from concerned citizens indicated that the animal was lethargic and displayed wounds suggesting that the animal had been attacked and injured by other dolphins at the facility.

These concerns rose dramatically two weeks ago when Sugarloaf personnel deliberately released its other former Navy dolphins, "Luther" and "Buck," into open waters about 30 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to the release, NMFS and APHIS were planning to remove all three of the Navy dolphins from the unsafe conditions at Sugarloaf. The unauthorized release was in open defiance of NMFS, which requires a scientific research permit for such releases under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

According to NMFS scientists, it is unclear whether formerly captive animals can successfully return to the wild and forage for food, avoid predators and socially interact with wild dolphins. As such, a research permit is required to ensure that individual dolphins are suitable candidates for release, and includes protocols and documentation for rehabilitating an animal to ensure adequate reconditioning from human dependence. A permit also requires post-release tracking to ensure the animal has regained those skills to survive in the wild.

Sugarloaf's release of Luther and Buck prompted a large- scale rescue operation involving personnel from NMFS and other marine mammal experts and organizations, Florida Marine Patrol, U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy. Both dolphins were recovered, one which was observed in a local marina begging for food from passing boaters. Veterinarians observed that the dolphins had been injured, each displaying serious wounds and showing signs of serious dehydration.

"We are relieved that Luther and Buck are now safe and under the care of qualified marine mammal veterinarians," said Schmitten. "We hope people will stop exploiting public sentiment about releasing marine mammals to the wild and take seriously the need to develop scientifically-sound methods of training dolphins to survive in the wild after spending years in captivity. To do otherwise is negligent and irresponsible."


Two of the three former U.S. Navy dolphins previously held at the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary in Sugarloaf Key, Fla., known as "Luther" and "Jake," are returning to their former home at the Navy's marine mammal program in San Diego today, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced. Agency officials said the third trained dolphin, known as "Buck," will make the trip after he recovers from a lack of care, substantial weight loss, and wounds he sustained when he was released and abandoned in the wild for nearly two weeks.

The dolphins have been temporarily held by the fisheries service at two separate facilities within the Florida Keys, in response to recent events at Sugarloaf. Buck and Luther were recaptured from the wild by the fisheries service after Sugarloaf deliberately released them into open waters 30 miles from its facility on May 23 without adequate training or the physical condition necessary to survive in the wild. On June 7, officials seized Jake from the Sugarloaf facility after the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service suspended Sugarloaf's license for multiple violations of the Animal Welfare Act, including failure to use qualified veterinary personnel, and the failure to conduct necessary physical examinations and blood tests. 

"Although we're extremely disappointed with the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary's negligent care of the dolphins, and their abandonment of Luther and Buck, we are relieved that all three dolphins are now receiving expert veterinary care," said National Marine Fisheries Service Director Rolland Schmitten.

In addition to health examinations and tests performed by Navy veterinarians during the past several days, all three dolphins were examined yesterday by an independent veterinarian selected by the fisheries service. Both Luther and Jake were found to be in stable health and ready for transport with minimal risk. Buck, however, is clearly in need of additional recovery time and veterinary care before he can be transported. 

After examining all available alternatives, the fisheries service decided that assigning custody of these three dolphins to the U.S. Navy's marine mammal program is in the best interest of their health and welfare. In making this decision, the fisheries service gave considerable emphasis to the Navy's extensive experience in the care and handling of these particular animals, and the fact that the Navy's marine mammal program has the resources and the qualified personnel, both experienced marine mammal veterinarians and trainers/handlers, to ensure that these three dolphins are provided the best of care. 

After a week in the wild, Luther appeared in waters near Boca Chica Naval Air Station more than 50 pounds underweight and with a six-inch laceration on his right side near the dorsal fin. Buck was spotted off Marathon Shores, Fla., after nearly two weeks in the wild, where he followed rescue boats into an enclosure. Buck is extremely underweight and has a laceration in front of the dorsal fin. Buck remains in serious condition. Jake is also underweight, but is responding well to care provided since his seizure at Sugarloaf. 

The fisheries service is in the process of investigating Sugarloaf personnel for their violations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

"Perhaps in the future a qualified team will submit a legitimate scientific proposal to release captive dolphins into the wild that can pass scientific peer review and agency scrutiny. Most importantly, a release proposal must ensure that such animals are prepared to survive in the wild," said Schmitten. 

The rescue operation for Luther and Buck was conducted with the assistance of the U.S. Navy, the Dolphin Research Center, the Marine Mammal Conservancy, and other stranding network volunteers. The Navy provided a team of experienced marine mammal experts to care for Luther and Jake while they were held temporarily in a lagoon near the Boca Chica Naval Air Station. The Boca Chica Naval Air Station provided support and security personnel to ensure the safety of these dolphins. The Dolphin Research Center is providing expert care for Buck during his recovery.

NOAA Press Release. Date: Fri, 11 Jun 1999.

Former "Flipper" dolphin trainer Richard O'Barry, and his associate Lloyd A. Good III, have been found guilty of violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act for releasing two captive dolphins off the Florida coast in May that were not prepared to survive in the wild and sustained life- threatening injuries. O'Barry, Good, and their respective corporate entities were ordered to pay civil penalties totalling $59,500, the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today.

Judge Peter A. Fitzpatrick, a U.S. Administrative Law Judge, fined Richard O'Barry of Coconut Grove, Fla.; Lloyd Good III of Sugarloaf Key, Fla.; Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary Inc. of Sugarloaf Key Fla.; and the Dolphin Project Inc. of South Miami, Fla., have been fined civil penalties of $40,000 for illegally "taking" by harassment and illegally transporting each of the dolphins -- the maximum penalty provided by law. The Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary was fined an additional $19,500 for failing to notify NOAA Fisheries prior to the transport of the dolphins. The defendants have 30 days in which to appeal the case.

"This case involved the reckless and intentional release of two captive dolphins by over-zealous activists who had not prepared the animals to survive in the wild," said NOAA prosecuting attorney Joel LaBissonniere. "We are very pleased with the judge's decision in this case. The judge's ruling supports our position that the release of captive dolphins to the wild needs to be conducted according to peer-reviewed scientific protocols and authorized pursuant to a MMPA scientific research permit, in order to protect the health and welfare of the animals."

O'Barry and Good released the two dolphins, named "Luther" and "Buck," approximately six miles off the coast of Key West, Florida., on May 23, 1996. The day after the dolphins were released, Luther appeared in a congested Key West marina with deep lacerations, approaching people, and begging for food. Buck, found two weeks after his release over 40 miles away, had similar deep lacerations and was emaciated NOAA Fisheries determined that the dolphins were in need of medical attention. With the help of members of the southeast marine mammal stranding network, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and Florida Marine Patrol, NOAA Fisheries successfully rescued the animals and provided veterinary care.

The two dolphins had been collected from the wild off the coast of Mississippi during the 1980's, and were in captivity for almost 10 years. They were initially in the U.S. Navy's marine mammal program, and were transferred to the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary in 1994 as part of a project that intended to return them to the wild. Although the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary obtained the necessary authorizations to have the dolphins on public display, a scientific research permit was never obtained or even requested prior to the release.

Releasing captive marine mammals to the wild can be hazardous to both the released animal and wild marine mammal populations if conducted improperly and without appropriate safeguards. Issues of concern include:

(1) the ability of released animals to adequately forage and defend themselves from predators;

(2) any behavioral patterns developed in captivity that could affect the social behavior of wild animals, as well as the social integration of
the released animals; and

(3) disease transmission and/or unwanted genetic exchange between released animals and wild stocks. According to NOAA Fisheries, any marine mammal release should be conducted with a MMPA scientific research permit to protect the health and welfare of marine mammals. The MMPA scientific research permit is required to ensure that humane protocols be in place that maximize the release's chance of success, and provide for long-term follow-up monitoring and emergency contingency plans in case it is necessary to rescue a released animal.

"Releasing captive dolphins to the wild has been romanticized in recent years, and has been promoted as a noble pursuit. However, the injuries these dolphins suffered and their obvious dependence on humans highlights the need for any release project to be conducted responsibly and scientifically," said NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources Director Hilda Diaz-Soltero "This decision sends a strong message that the abuse and abandonment of dolphins will not be tolerated."

NOAA Fisheries is an agency of the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA Fisheries is dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation's living marine resources through scientific research, management, enforcement, and conservation.

- press release ends-


Poster Presentation. Presented at the 13th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. 1999