Mishandling of stingrays at the Sandbar could soon mean tour operators having their licenses pulled or even ending up in court.
Concerns have been raised over tour guides and tourists lifting rays out of the water, draping them on their shoulders or posing for a kiss with a stingray at the popular tourist attraction.
Now the National Conservation Council has approved draft guidelines outlining what behavior is considered illegal under the law.
Some interaction, including touching the rays, is still allowed, but environment officials are concerned about the repeated impact of aggressive handling of the rays by a growing number of tourists.
Scott Slaybaugh, deputy director of operations and enforcement at the DoE, said the National Conservation Law forbids taking, harassing or injuring rays, but those provisions were difficult to enforce without clear guidelines over exactly what was not permitted.
Once the guidance notes are finalized and come into force, he said the DoE’s enforcement officers would have the power to charge people and potentially pull the licenses of offenders.
Mr. Slaybaugh said there would be a period of education first, before the department gets tough with prosecutions. A presentation will be given to all water-sports businesses permitted to operate in the Wildlife Interaction Zone, and an educational video has been produced in association with the Guy Harvey Foundation.
He said the DoE had drafted the guidelines based on the advice of stingray experts about the long-term effects on the health of the animals. He said lifting the animals out the water and bending them in any way were the key concerns.
Exposure to sunscreen has also been highlighted as an issue.
“A single incident of mishandling may not result in immediately apparent harm, but the same rays are handled several times daily and impacts such as from bending, lifting while pregnant, sunscreen, and scratches, can be cumulative and long-term,” the draft guidelines indicate.
Mr. Slaybaugh said the majority of tour operators were responsible.
“Most people are trying to do the right thing, but there are a few that are trying to impress the tourists and that is the sort of thing we want to prevent,” he said.