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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, October 5, 2006

Do dolphins need more protection?

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

KNOWN FOR LEAPS, TWIRLS

Spinner dolphins, Stenella longirostris, get their common name from their habit of leaping from the water and twirling in the air. They are the smallest dolphins commonly found around Hawai'i, and can grow to nearly 6 feet in length and close to 160 pounds.

They are dark gray on the top, lighter gray on the sides and white underneath. They congregate in pods of a few animals to 100 or more. They feed in deep water at night, and come to shore during the day, where they play and rest.

Resting behavior involves slow swimming in tight formation. Makua Bay on O'ahu and Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island are sites of almost daily spinner visits, but they frequent many other bays around the state as well.

MORE INFORMATION

NOAA's public meetings on proposed regulations on interactions between humans and spinner dolphins will be from 6 to 9 p.m. on four days:

Oct. 17: McCoy Pavilion, Ala Moana Park, O'ahu;

Oct. 19: Aloha Beach Resort Pi'ikoi Room, Kaua'i;

Oct. 25: Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary headquarters office, Kihei, Maui;

Oct. 26: King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel, Kailua, Kona, Hawai'i.

Written comments will be accepted through Nov. 24, and can be sent to Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator for protected resources, Pacific Islands Region, NMFS, 1601 Kapi'olani Blvd., Suite 1110, Honolulu HI 96814. Or email Spinner.Scoping@noaa.gov.

Source: Advertiser research

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In their natural state, spinner dolphins feed for much of the night, then come into nearshore bays to rest and play during the day. But increasingly, their much-needed rest time is spent dealing with an adoring public.

Humans swim out from the beaches to be with them. Kayakers paddle out to their pods. Boats tow snorkelers on ropes through dolphin pods. And particularly on O'ahu's Wai'anae coast and the Big Island's Kona coast dozens upon dozens of people show up in tour boats, from which many jump over the side to experience closeness to dolphins.

"A lot of the things going on out there are going beyond the bounds of responsible wildlife viewing," said Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator for protected resources with NOAA's Fisheries Service.

Now, federal authorities, who are charged under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act with ensuring dolphin safety, are looking into whether more regulations are needed to govern interactions between humans and spinner dolphins. A series of public scoping meetings later this month could lead to an environmental impact statement on the issue.

Cetacean biologist Dave Johnston, with NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, said there is increasing evidence worldwide that spinners need their rest during the day, and that their behavior does change if they don't get it. Some animals leave their preferred rest areas when subjected to regular human activity, some change their rest cycles and there may be changes in their reproductive rates, he said.

"Our intent is to allow these animals to continue to be healthy. People who have good intentions may be doing harmful things to them," Johnston said.

Lisa Van Atta, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administraton's Marine Mammal Protection Act specialist in the Pacific Islands Regional Office, said she hopes this month's meetings on four islands will help clearly lay out the issues.

One regulatory approach seems to find support from people generally at odds about the issue in other areas: Identify times when dolphins are normally resting and the places where they do it, and exclude people from those areas at those times. Also, avoid dropping swimmers directly on the dolphins.

"When these animals come into the shallow water, they need to rest. They should not be needing to swim away to avoid people," said Peter Young, chairman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.

POSSIBLE COMPROMISE

What might be appropriate would be to allow swimmers in the water some not-yet-determined distance from the dolphins, and letting the animals swim to the humans if they choose to, said several people interviewed by The Advertiser.

"I agree (that rest) is an issue, but there needs to be a viable middle ground where there can be interaction," said Star Newland, founder of the Sirius Institute in Puna, which promotes closer relationships between humans and dolphins and whales. "Any kind of interaction with them is pretty much entirely their call."

Van Atta said the idea is comparatively easy to enforce, since any tour boat found within the zone during blackout times would clearly be in violation.

But what regulation might be enacted, or even whether there will be regulation, is not a certainty, Yates said.

"Everything is still on the table," he said.

There is little consensus on whether humans are abusing these peaceful wild animals with all the adoration, or if the spinners are so nimble and mobile that they could easily avoid interaction without negative consequences if they wanted to.

To describe the divergence of opinion at its most basic, there are people who believe that spinner dolphins are wild animals that ought to be entirely left alone, and there are people who believe they are mystically powerful creatures that can and should be allowed to lead humans to enlightenment. Curiously, there may actually be middle ground for people in these divergent camps.

"These are the oldest, wisest and most intelligent creatures on the planet. We ought to increase our ability to interact with them in a respectful way," said Puna biologist Michael Hyson. "We feel the cetacea (whales and dolphins) here are reaching out to us, and it's time to increase the interaction."

NO INTERACTION

NOAA's Yates has the opposite view: "We do not want people swimming with dolphins. These are wild animals and people should not be going out and touching them or playing with them. That's not good for these animals. It changes their natural behavior ... We want wild animals to be wild."

Veteran Kona boat skipper Doug Webster said there is little risk to the animals from the dolphin swimming programs. He is frustrated that the same NOAA agency that oversees what he called the killing of dolphins by tuna fishing fleets and high-intensity sonar use by the Navy is trying to regulate the comparatively peaceful and innocuous activity of humans being close to dolphins in the water.

"Dolphins are not dying and they're not being reduced in numbers. It's a very large coastline and most of it is inaccessible from the shore. My experience is that when they choose to interact, they interact, and if they don't want to interact, there is no way you can force them. Dolphins are in total command of the situation," Webster said.

Still, he has seen situations where too many tour boats put too many people in the water with the marine mammals.

"Ninety nine-point-nine percent of the time, if dolphins are in the water, they're not being bothered at all. I'm a captain. I take people out, and if I see that the dolphins are being taxed, I go the other way," Webster said. "There are a few times when the envelope is being pushed a lot of people and a small pod ... I back away."

Webster said education is a better solution to the problem than regulation.

"The proposed regulations appear to separate humans from the dolphins ... It is my experience that separation breeds apathy and ignorance, paving the way for the cetaceans' continued abuse," he said.

But education of dolphin tour operators may not be enough, said Tori Cullins, a Wai'anae dolphin researcher and tour operator. She said some of the Wai'anae coast's tour operators abide by an agreement to keep people out of the water when some are already there, but some operators don't.

"I believe we need a permitting system. When new boats come on board, they're there to exploit the dolphins. Gentlemen's agreements all go out the window when there are more tours, more people and more travel agents to please," she said.

NO RESPECT FROM SOME

Rather than an ethic of respect for the wildlife, some tour operations treat the dolphins as a recreational commodity, Cullins said: "Sometimes it's really goofy like the dolphins are here to play with you."

She said boats and tourists are pressing the dolphin pods of Makua Bay and the Wai'anae coast from early in the day until late. In one recent incident, several tour boats were standing back from a pod, when a new tour vessel drove right through them and started dropping swimmers around the pod. It was unpleasant, abusive of the animals and it goes on too often, she said.

"It's all day long," Cullins said.

LEARN MORE

Fish and Wildlife Service site: www.fws.gov/midway/wildlife/dolphin.html

National Marine Fisheries Service report: www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/pdfs/sars/po03spinnerdolphinhawaii.pdf

Petition calling for regulation: www.petitiononline.com/oahunaia/petition.html

Source: Advertiser research

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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