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Fighting for Dolphins and Due Process in the Bahamas

In our continuing fight to stop the proliferation of captive dolphin facilities in the Caribbean, we often support the grassroots efforts of individuals and organizations that are on the ground and on the front lines of confronting captive facility proposals and their proponents. The Caribbean is generally a battle zone for efforts to oppose new dolphin facilities, as captures continue to occur in the region primarily in Cuba, and existing swim-with programs seek to expand to other islands. Currently, local organizations and individuals are leading the opposition against proposed facilities on St. Thomas, Turks and Caicos, and the Bahamas.

In most of these cases, local organizations are looking to the legal systems within these countries to provide them with a mechanism to challenge these facilities on environmental, animal welfare, or procedural grounds. Over the past few days, WDC has received positive and encouraging news from reEarth, a Bahamian organization that WDC continues to support, and who is leading the fight against the development of a fourth dolphin swim-with facility there. In a somewhat unprecedented move, the Supreme Court of the Bahamas has granted permission to reEarth to bring judicial review proceedings challenging the permits and approvals received by the Blackbeard’s Cay project.  As a result, those government officials involved in permitting the dolphin facility must make full disclosure of all permit, license, lease and approval applications submitted by the developer Blue Illusions.

This ruling is significant and allows any procedural improprieties and breaches of law to be addressed, including the failure of the planning committee to hold a public hearing, a requirement under the permitting process. The Blackbeard’s Cay project is controversial not only because of the potential skirting of proper permitting procedures, but also for its potential to harm local retailers on Nassau through its diversion of cruise passengers to the cay, as well as the reportedly inhumane conditions in which the dolphins are currently being held . Eight dolphins were shipped from Honduras in July 2013, and are being held in shallow and unprotected sea pens.  Three other dolphin facilities holding at least 70 dolphins already operate within the Bahamas.

As the current worldwide captive population of dolphins remains unsustainable, the establishment of yet another captive dolphin facility in the Bahamas will likely lead to dolphins being captured from the wild, with unknown consequences for the population from which they are removed. Although the dolphins currently at Blackbeard’s Cay are reportedly from Honduras, it is not clear whether they were captured from the wild, or bred in captivity. Even already-trained dolphins from other facilities are likely to have been originally captured from the wild from capture operations such as those operating in Japan, Solomon Islands and Cuba; operations for which serious concerns as to their sustainability and cruelty have been raised by the international scientific community.

As more people become aware of the welfare and conservation risks posed to dolphins by their capture and confinement in captivity, the development of further captive dolphin facilities around the world is brought increasingly into question. Captive dolphin tourism is falling out of favor, and even the cruise industry has shown signs of change. In its Sustainability Report 2010, Carnival Cruise Lines UK announced that it had elected not to operate tours which involve interactions with captive dolphins “in order to maintain its commitment to the environment.” More enlightened cruise lines are turning away from promoting swim-with and other captive programs to their patrons.

We understand that many people profess a desire to get close to dolphins, and the swim-with advertisements that greet travelers at baggage claims throughout the Caribbean only encourage this activity for vacationers seeking these encounters in the welcoming waters of the region. But there is a cost associated with such interactions: costs to the dolphins, the environment, and even personal safety. Captive facilities have catered to and exploited our love for these animals by packaging an opportunity to get up close and personal with dolphins in what appears to be a controlled setting where they can choose to freely engage in contact with us. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Unfortunately, facilities that promote swim-with-dolphin programs suggest that the interactions between humans and dolphins are reciprocal—that dolphins seek out these interactions through their own will and desire. Rather, these dolphins are motivated by food in a severely restricted environment, not by a reciprocal desire to be near us. No matter how we might justify these attractions, whether through a veneer of education, or with the hope of attracting tourist revenue and bolstering the local economy, these programs are self-serving prisons for species that naturally roam up to a hundred miles a day, and should never be forced to seek an encounter with us except on their own terms. These programs are nothing more than our entertainment and amusement, at the dolphins’ expense, no matter where these animals come from, and regardless of the arguments put forward by investors or proponents of these captive programs.

Furthermore, dolphin swim-with programs are not all rosy for human participants, either: injuries occur frequently, and can be serious. An unsuspecting public is not ready for a dolphin that becomes aggressive and either bites, rams, or pushes them underwater. These incidents are too numerous to count, but more recently a Swedish tourist was injured near Cancun, Mexico in Isla Mujeres and has vowed never to swim with dolphins again. One unforgettable incident that was profiled in the media occurred in 2002 where ‘Inside Edition’ journalist Nancy Glass was severely and permanently injured by 500-pound dolphin that fell upon her during a swim-with encounter in the Bahamas. Dolphins can also carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans (and vice versa).

The dolphin trade is indeed lucrative for a select few, but many Islands throughout the Caribbean have recognized the true costs involved and have refused to implement, or have abandoned their dolphin programs, including Antigua, Dominica, St. Maarten, Panama, and Costa Rica. Others have banned additional imports or exports of dolphins and other marine mammals, including Mexico. In many countries, most recently India, legislation has been implemented to safeguard the future of dolphins threatened by live captures and confinement in captivity and to prohibit capture, trade and captivity of these animals.

We encourage The Bahamas to consider the establishment of a similar policy as that announced by the Netherlands Antilles in 2006. This policy establishes a moratorium on new facilities by acknowledging that because the status of wild dolphin populations is still unclear in most parts of the Caribbean, and the impact of the capture of even a few wild dolphins is unknown, they would no longer contribute to the further proliferation of captive dolphin facilities.

The Caribbean abounds with more humane, ethical, and authentic tourism opportunities that don’t contribute to the destruction of the marine environment and that aren’t reliant upon the confinement of another sentient species. We continue to work towards a captivity-free Caribbean, and applaud the passionate individuals making a difference throughout the region.