Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass November 2002

'Swim with Dolphins'

Captivation or Captivity?

Dolphins and other marine mammals have been displayed in captivity for over a hundred years for the purposes of human entertainment, research and, more recently, for direct physical interactions such as "swim-with-dolphins" programs. While those who have experienced it might say that touching, feeding or swimming with a dolphin is one of the most captivating experiences of their lives, others, including environmental groups such as the UK-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), have expressed grave concerns, supported by scientific studies, about the health of marine mammals in captive facilities.

In the Wider Caribbean Region, there are currently a number of captive cetacean facilities: 19 in Mexico, three in Cuba, three in Venezuela, two in Colombia, two in the Bahamas, and one each in Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Anguilla and Tortola. Facilities are in the process of being established in Antigua and Curaçao. A "swim-with-dolphins" program has been proposed for the Tobago Cays in St. Vincent & the Grenadines. Cetaceans are displayed in some 39 facilities in the USA.
The SPAW Protocol (Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol of the Cartagena Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment in the Wider Caribbean Region) is a legal commitment by the countries of the Caribbean region to protect, develop and manage their common coastal and marine resources individually and jointly. The area covered by this agreement stretches from Florida and the Bahamas west to Mexico, south to Colombia, Venezuela and Suriname, and through the Eastern Caribbean.
To date, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the United States (i.e. Puerto Rico and the USVI; albeit with reservations), the Netherlands Antilles, France (i.e. the French islands), Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago, Venezuela, Colombia and Panama are Parties to the agreement. The Protocol, which became international law in June 2000, is now legally binding on all those nations listed above, which have ratified it. Other countries, including Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico and the United Kingdom (BVI and Anguilla) have signed the treaty but have not yet ratified it.

The Protocol requires that Parties shall ensure the protection and recovery of endangered and threatened species, and prohibit, where appropriate, the disturbance, taking, possession, killing or commercial trade in these species. According to a recent address given by WDCS to Parties to SPAW, there are no harmonized standards for the regulation of captive facilities in the Caribbean, and, in the absence of viable captive breeding programs, dolphins continue to be taken from wild populations to supply the demand created by captive facilities and to compensate for their premature deaths in captivity. All cetaceans are considered threatened by the SPAW Protocol, and opponents say that the captive dolphin programs (with the exception of those strictly for educational purposes) are against the terms of the agreement. Nevertheless, of the 11 Parties to the SPAW Protocol, four currently hold cetaceans in captive facilities.

A fifth may soon be added to that list. Jane Tipson of the St. Lucia Animal Protection Society (SLAPS) reports that a St. Lucian tour company, in partnership with a company registered in Anguilla, intends to request permission to capture 12 bottlenose dolphins in St. Lucian waters for a facility where the dolphins would be trained to interact with tourists. SLAPS, the St. Lucia Whale and Dolphin Watching Association, the St. Lucia National Trust (SLNT) and the St. Lucia Heritage Tourism Programme have come out in opposition to the project. Objections, in addition to violation of the SPAW Protocol, range from cruelty to animals to the fact that pods of dolphins found in St. Lucia's waters are actually - given their wide range - a shared resource among St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Grenada, Martinique and Dominica, all of which have whale-and-dolphin-watching tour operations.

The SLNT says, "the legal mandate of the Trust is to conserve the natural and cultural heritage of Saint Lucia in the terrestrial, marine, subterranean and submarine areas, and this must guide our position. The Saint Lucia National Trust will therefore only support [the holding of] wild animals in captivity if there is a compelling argument of conservation to protect an endangered species or a strong research component the results of which are used to understand the lifecycle of the animals and to improve their health. Neither of these prerequisites exists in this case and we therefore cannot support the implementation of this project in St. Lucia."

Operators of "swim with dolphin" programs contend, however, that their animals are well cared for and that the programs provide benefits for humans and dolphins alike.
Next month: A closer look at the pros and cons of captive dolphin programs.

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