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A man has been given a warning letter for harassing a sperm whale that died while languishing off Florida's Pompano Beach two months ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Thursday.
In the written warning issued earlier this month, NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement told Anthony Armento that he violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits people from harassing, capturing, hunting or killing whales and other marine mammals.
The alleged harassment occurred the morning of Dec. 16 in the waters off Pompano Beach, when a man was seen getting on top of a sperm whale by a witness, who photographed the bizarre encounter from afar.
The whale, pronounced dead hours later that day, was thought by marine scientists to have been ailing at sea long before the whale was harassed. Still, responding to reports of the man harassing the whale, NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement investigated and said it identified Armento as the violator.
Video on NBCMiami.com: NOAA slaps warning on man for harassing whale
The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), enacted in October 1972, was established to protect and conserve marine mammals, according to Erin Fougeres, a marine mammal scientist with NOAA.
"The MMPA is the primary mechanism that we have to manage and conserve marine animals in the United States," Fougeres said. "It does make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, kill or attempt to do any of those things to a marine mammal."
Also on NBCMiami.com: NOAA to look into report of swimmer getting on whale that died
Violations can result in a civil penalty up to $11,000, as well as criminal penalties up to $100,000 and imprisonment of up to a year or both. Violators include those who approach the marine mammals too closely to watch, feed or swim with them.
"We recognize that these are important animals in the marine environment, and also animals that the public enjoys seeing in the wild," Fougeres said. "And the act is really primarily to protect them so that we have them around for future generations."
Also on NBCMiami.com: Dead sperm whale towed out to sea from Deerfield Beach
"You want to make sure that as you're observing them, you're observing them from a safe distance and in a manner that would not change their natural behavior," Fougeres said.
In Armento's case, the purpose of NOAA's issuing him a written warning was to document the violation, NOAA said. It also could be used to justify a more severe penalty if any future violations involving him occur, NOAA said.
"When proceeding with investigations and prosecutions, NOAA considers such things as the violator's intention or state of mind, the effect of a violation on the resource, the need for specific and general deterrence, etc.," NOAA said in a statement. "In this case, after considering the facts of the case, NOAA determined that a written warning was an appropriate outcome."
Photos provided to NBCMiami.com by a witness showed two swimmers nearing the whale the day of the incident, though only one person was seen in a picture on top of the whale. NOAA on Thursday did not say whether the second swimmer was cited.
The day of the incident, witness Margie Casey told NBCMiami.com that she saw two swimmers twice go up to the whale. She said she watched them from her fifth-floor balcony and snapped photos of the one swimmer getting on the whale.
Casey said the whale had been drifting north along the shore, just south of a stretch of beach near the Northeast 14th Street Causeway. Casey said she considered the whale to be alive at the time, because it was flapping its tail. Perhaps the whale was on its "last leg," Casey said in a Dec. 16 interview. "So sad."
A specialist went into the water later that day and determined the sperm whale had died, officials said. The next day, the dead whale washed up around Deerfield Beach's fishing pier. It then was towed more than five miles out to sea to dispose of its carcass, officials said.
The Pompano Beach whale case is among the latest in a series of cases in Florida involving the harassment of animals.
Sunday, a Fort Pierce, Fla., man was arrested on the charge he violated Florida law by illegally playing with and handling a manatee calf, then posting Facebook pictures of the encounter, authorities said. And in November last year, a St. Petersburg, Fla., woman was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of violating state law by riding a manatee, officials said.
NOAA encourages anyone who sees possible violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to report it to NOAA's enforcement hotline at 1-800-853-1964. Anyone who sees a stranded, injured or entangled marine mammal may report it to the Southeast Regional Marine Mammal hotline at 1-877-942-5343.