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Barefoot Establishes Cetacean Law in Key Largo With Global Reach

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Cetacean Law Key Largo
Stubbs Island Whale Watching Boat – flag indicating that they are in the presence of whales. ©Stephanie Stefanski


Growing up, Natalie Barefoot had a four-panel poster of a breaching humpback whale in her bedroom. “I’ve always been drawn to whales,” said the University of Miami School of Law graduate. Now, Barefoot is the executive director of Cet Law.

“Cet” is short for the word cetacean, a scientific category that includes whales, porpoises and dolphins.

Through Cet Law, Barefoot aims to combine her passions for cetaceans, law and environmental protection. “When people ask what I do, the easiest description is to say I am a whale lawyer.”

Barefoot established Cet Law in Key Largo in 2015 because it is near her network of contacts in Miami. But additionally, the quality of life, the ecosystem and tourism are interconnected here. “We live and breathe our marine environment. It is part of our life every day; sustainable tourism is the key.”

Cetacean Law Key Largo
Barefoot discussing Whale Heritage Sites with “The Marine Detective” Jackie Hildering and Captain Roger McDonell of Stubbs Island Whale Watching. ©Stephanie Stefanski

After graduating law school, Barefoot worked in Miami at Hogan Lovells, where for five years her main client was the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Her work centered on endangered species and water flow. She learned her favorite part was working with scientists. As an attorney she had to distill technical information into precise, accurate language that could be understood outside of the scientific community in order to present the case to the judge. “I loved taking the information from the micro to the macro level,” she observed.

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The challenge, she found, was finding agreement with scientists on a figure that achieved the results the client wanted; for example, a level of water flow through a dam that protects endangered species. “You have to ask the court for a specific remedy; however, scientists are, understandably, at times reluctant to commit to a figure because a change in any parameter of a model, which can be caused by a myriad of outside influences, can change the final outcome.”

Barefoot’s affinity for incorporating science and best practices into legal frameworks is reflected in Cet Law’s tagline: “translating science and knowledge into protection.”

©Stephanie Stefanski
An orca breaches in Vancouver Island North which has applied to become the world’s first Whale Heritage Site – Barefoot was there performing an audit. ©Stephanie Stefanski


After her experience in private law, Barefoot worked with the United Nations Environment Programme in Geneva, Switzerland. There, an opportunity presented itself to observe a trial in the Netherlands regarding an orca that had to be rescued and rehabilitated under a permit, but rather than released, it was transferred to a zoological park where it now performs. Seeing whales in the legal system inspired her to get involved in a hands-on way.

So, she left the UN and spent time in the field with scientific researchers. First, she went to New Zealand where she worked with an orca whale expert, Dr. Ingrid Visser. “I offered my legal expertise in exchange for field experience and the opportunity to understand on-the-ground what issues cetaceans were facing.” Next, Barefoot went to the Cook Islands to work with humpback whale expert Nan Hauser. She spent four months there, again offering her technical assistance in exchange for experience.

I found there was indeed a need and that establishing a not-for-profit made the most sense to be able to effectively reach the end result of improving protection for cetaceans and their habitats.

Cetacean Law Key Largo
Barefoot on a research vessel in Vancouver Island North during its audit to become a Whale Heritage Site.

All that time, she was also trying to understand if there was a need for someone like her, and if so, what the best vehicle to deliver those services would be.

“I found there was indeed a need and that establishing a not-for-profit made the most sense to be able to effectively reach the end result of improving protection for cetaceans and their habitats. The funny thing was, I thought that by focusing my work on cetaceans, I could really drill down on a narrow area of law and policy.” But, she found this was not the case. “There are a lot of activities that directly affect cetaceans – fishing bycatch, whale watching, ship strikes, entanglements… And, when you think about it, so many, if not all of our daily actions affect the marine environment, which is the habitat of cetaceans. It has been a huge learning curve from that perspective, but I am loving every moment of it; I am meant for this work.”


To find out more or to make a donation please visit Natalie on social media: https://www.facebook.com/cetaceanlaw/ and at her website cetaceanlaw.org

To see more of Stephanie Stefanski’s photography of whales and our marine environment, follow her on Instagram @oceandiplomat 

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Jill Borski
Jill Borski
Jill Zima Borski lives in Islamorada, Fla. and is board chair of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association.

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