dolphins enduring more harrassment

officials want tougher viewing rules

by lisa huynh
west hawaii today

officials with the national marine fisheries service want to ensure that the behavior of hawaiian spinner dolphins is not altered by human harassment. in a few months, the agency will propose changes to the federal marine mammal protection act (mmpa) to make voluntary viewing guidelines into mandatory rules.

current guidelines for marine mammals state people should remain at least 100 yards away, limit observation time to 30 minutes and not feed, touch or swim with them. federal law already prohibits pursuit of dolphins.

"it's pretty obvious that voluntary guidelines have not been effective in regulating the actions of people," said chris yates, nmfs marine mammal bureau branch chief. "we want people to enjoy spinner dolphins, but we are concerned about the way some of these activities are being conducted. humans are clearly disrupting their natural behavior. as an agency, that is something we cannot condone."

yates said any proposed changes will target only hawaiian spinner dolphins because the species has very predictable resting behaviors -- making them vulnerable to exploitation. further, the agency does not want to unnecessarily restrict human viewing opportunities of other species.

research in the last few decades has documented human disturbance of hawaiian spinner dolphins around the state and on the west coast of the big island, particularly at kealakekua bay. in the 1970s and 1980s, marine biologist kenneth norris, who helped write the mmpa, noted that "cruise boats" would seek out and run through groups of spinner dolphins. in addition to these findings, norris also documented spinner dolphins acting aggressively toward people by charging at them and making threat displays.

in 2004, biologist sarah courbis reported high levels of vessel and swimmer traffic in kealakekua bay, honaunau bay and kauhako bay, and found that spinner dolphins exhibited decreased aerial activity during their entry and exit into kealakekua bay when compared to previous studies, as well as increased aerial activity during mid-day when dolphins typically rest.

after years of expressed concerns from public and private agencies, nmfs is soliciting input on how to improve regulations protecting spinner dolphins. specifically, the nmfs wants to further define the mmpa definition of "take." currently the term is defined as "to harass, hunt, capture or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal."

tori cullins, co-operator of wild side tours and director of the wild dolphin foundation on oahu, said her business would be willing to sacrifice a drop in clientele rather than allow the number of human-to-dolphin contact to continue climbing. wide side tours takes out about 4,800 clients per year, specifically to view dolphins. their business does provide opportunities to "swim with the dolphins" but said she her business does not chase down pods as do other oahu operators.

although cullins said dolphins have habituated to people, she believes there is a capacity to regulate amount and types of visitation. she said dolphins leave their resting grounds if too many people are in the water.

"we believe that a permitting situation would be extremely beneficial to enforce regulations limiting the number of tours, boats, swimmers, time spent with, approach methods, and times of day that the dolphins are subjected to visitation," said cullins. she said if an operator consistently fails to follow the rules they should be banned from operating dolphin tours.

jeff walters, co-manager of the state hawaiian humpback whale marine sanctuary, said the state could not take actions on marine mammals in the past because mmpa restricts state involvement. he added that the department of land and natural resources believes management of spinner dolphin habitats should be enhanced.

"we're really encouraged to see noaa take action," said walters. "unfortunately, spinner dolphins were not protected under the endangered species act and the state could not act on its own in protecting this species."

if nmfs includes enforceable rules into its proposal, the national oceanic and atmospheric administration's enforcement branch will be responsible for enforcement.

"the hope is that we never have to enforce the regulations, that people understand this is best for the dolphins," said yates. "but we need to put something on the books to make sure people know what the limits are."

based on the first comment period, nmfs will propose regulations and publish them in the federal register in spring 2006. any interested parties may then comment on those regulations before final changes are made.

comments must be received no later than jan 11. interested parties may submit comments via e-mail: or mail: marine mammal branch chief, protected resources division, pacific islands regional office, national marine fisheries service, 1601 kapiolani boulevard, suite 1110, honolulu, hi 96814

marine mammal viewing 'code of conduct'

1. remain at least 100 yards from marine mammals.

2. time spent observing animals should be limited to 30 minutes.

3. whales should not be encircled or trapped between boats, or boats and shore.

4. if approached by a whale, put the engine in neutral and allow the whale to pass.

5. federal law prohibits pursuit of marine mammals.

6. even if approached by a marine mammal, offering food, discarding fish or fish waste, or any other food item is prohibited.

7. do not touch or swim with the animals, even if approached. they can behave unpredictably and may also transmit disease.

marine mammal protection act

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