Context Potential impacts of human disturbance on animal populations can be measured as behavioural responses and may affect the survival and fecundity of animals. In areas where humanwildlife interactions occur, conservation management needs to be in place to secure both a viable tourism industry and the sustainability of the targeted species. Aims We sought to evaluate whether different approach distances by boat have effects on the behaviour and group cohesion of dolphins that are targeted by Australia's largest dolphin-watching industry. Methods The effects of different approach distances of boats on the behavioural states of dolphins, group dispersal and direction of movement were investigated in this area by controlled boat experiments conducted between August 2008 and December 2009. Key results Results showed that there was significantly less feeding when boats approached dolphin groups to a distance of 50m than when they did to a distance of 150m, or with controlled approaches. Resting was also observed significantly less when boats approached to a distance of 50m than when they approached to a distance of 150m. The dispersal of dolphin groups was significantly tighter (less dispersed) when boats approached to 50m than that with 150-m-distance or controlled approaches. Furthermore, the dolphins' direction of movement was less neutral when the experimental boat approaches were carried out at a distance of 50m than when they were carried out at a distance of 150m, or with controlled approaches. Similar results were also obtained for dolphin groups including calves. Conclusions On the basis of the results from this study, we recommend that the existing New South Wales regulations, which stipulate that dolphin-watching boats keep a distance of 50m to groups with adults only and 150m to groups with calves, are maintained within the Port StephensGreat Lakes Marine Park (PSGLMP). Implications Management plans whose stated goals include both sustainability of a dolphin-watching industry and longer-term viability of a dolphin population may reconcile conflicting objectives and improve their decision making by using these empirical measures rather than best guesses.