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September 25, 2009

Held Captive: Developing Nations

The Humane Society of the United States

Social scientists typically divide countries into two groups, developed nations and developing nations, based on wealth, social progress and low-population growth, among other criteria. Marine mammal scientists could almost do the same thing based on one criterion: where each nation stands with marine parks.

While the United States, Canada and the nations of the European Union have all experienced a decline in attendance at marine parks—perhaps because of a growing understanding of the intelligence of cetaceans in these countries—developing nations are headed in the opposite direction. Business is booming at marine parks in areas such as the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and Mexico.

The Caribbean

There are currently at least 14 operational swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) exhibits in the Caribbean, with seven or eight more in the planning stages. A surprising number of these facilities are concrete tanks; others are sea pens located at sites with poor water flow. None are governed by strong regulations—and those few with some form of regulatory standards lack strong enforcement.

Captures are on the rise in the region as well. Cuba, on average, captures several bottlenose dolphins a year to sell in the international market. Eight bottlenose dolphins were captured in the Dominican Republic in August 2002 (their fate unknown). Antigua and Barbuda had issued a permit to capture 12 dolphins a year—a permit they recently rescinded when faced with a lawsuit—and permitting agencies are seriously considering capture proposals in St. Lucia, the Cayman Islands, and Jamaica.

Such governmental behavior is, to say the least, rash. After all, very little is known about dolphin populations in this region, which means there can be no valid estimate of the impact that capturing dolphins would have on their conservation. Such baseless governmental permitting is also contrary to international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The HSUS is especially active in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. We have visited these nations at the request of local environmental groups, meeting with government officials, making public presentations, and speaking with the media.

In particular, we hope to prevent any more captures in the Dominican Republic by inaugurating a national dolphin research program, but one initially focused on the area where the captures took place. Dominicans were very much opposed to the (government-permitted) captures; in fact, two groups, Fundemar and the Academy of Sciences, filed a lawsuit opposing the permit issued for the August 2002 capture. The case is still ongoing.

The people are enthusiastically supportive of a research program. If such a program, aimed at establishing responsibly regulated eco-tourism (such as dolphin-watching tours), can be launched and maintained into the near future, it's unlikely the government will issue any more capture permits, at least until the research is concluded. Furthermore, if eco-tourism ventures succeed, captive dolphin attractions and capture operations may fail simply because they can't compete economically.

In Jamaica, the outlook is less rosy. The country has two facilities, Half Moon Resort in Montego Bay and Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios, with the latter strongly supported by the cruise ship industry. The HSUS is seeking to meet with executives from the Royal Caribbean line in an effort to get at the demand side of the economic equation.

Meanwhile, the Jamaican government is being pressured to allow captures in local waters to supply the expansion of Dolphin Cove and to replace one of the two dolphins at Half Moon. The two young dolphins there, wild-caught in Cuba, appeared active and healthy during an HSUS visit in August 2003; however, one suddenly died in October, leaving the other in unnatural solitude. (The solitary dolphin was sent to the Ocho Rios facility soon after the death of its companion—the Half Moon facility closed temporarily then recently reopened with six dolphins imported from Cuba.)

The South Pacific

However bad it is in the Caribbean, nothing there compares to the makeshift capture operation that took place last year in the Solomon Islands, a civil-war-torn nation consisting of a thousand islands near Australia. Nearly 100 dolphins were captured there, apparently financed by businessmen intent on selling them to other countries.

"Taking so many dolphins at once puts a big strain on resources and staff and almost guarantees that many of the animals will receive inadequate monitoring and care," noted Dr. Naomi Rose, The HSUS's marine mammal scientist.

To date, 28 of these dolphins have been exported, to Cancun, Mexico, a transaction that the Mexican government allowed even though it was given inadequate paperwork for the import. The resulting international controversy—marine mammal scientists argued the capture shouldn't have taken place without scientific information on the conservation status of regional dolphin populations—and the fact that an export permit was issued by a government in crisis made the whole affair front-page news around the world.

One dolphin died in late July, soon after arriving at the Parque Nizuc facility in Cancun; another (a locally caught dolphin already held at the facility) died a few weeks later. Mexico is currently re-examining its wildlife-import practices under CITES; in fact, the country's legislature is considering a bill to ban all marine mammal imports for public display. After the deaths, the Parque Nizuc facility was temporarily closed to the public, but it has filed a legal action that, until it is resolved, will prevent the government from revoking the import permit or confiscating the dolphins.

Meanwhile, in the Solomon Islands, about 40 dolphins continue to swim in endless circles in small, makeshift pens. A team of World Conservation Union (IUCN) inspectors made a cursory visit last September, determining that perhaps as many as 27 of the captured dolphins had been released from the pens since June for unknown reasons. A journalist for the Los Angeles Times reported that at least nine dolphins had died in pens during that same time period (for a total of at least 94 captured).

What's more, the IUCN team verified that no information is presently available on the wild dolphin stocks around the islands, concluding that any trade in the animals should be prohibited under CITES.

Mexico

Perhaps the worst news related to captures and fly-by-night SWTD operations involves the so-called La Paz dolphins, who were captured in December 2000 for a facility built in a questionable location in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

The enclosure is situated near a sewage outlet, and is in the path of both vessel traffic and hurricanes, circumstances heavily criticized when eight dolphins were captured on the Pacific side of the peninsula and transported there in the dead of night. Within weeks of capture, one dolphin died. When a hurricane hit the village in September 2003, debris and contaminated runoff turned the water in the pen a muddy brown.

Just as activists predicted, the dolphins sickened (and were no doubt heavily battered during the storm), and within days, four more died. After four years in captivity, there are now only three dolphins left from the original eight. They have been moved to another facility, more protected than the La Paz enclosure, but still the government makes no move to release these beleaguered animals back into the wild.

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