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Loving Dolphins To Death : Is Our Fascination With Marine Mammals Endangering Their Lives?

April 07, 1991|DAVID WEDDLE | David Weddle is a free-lance writer based in Malibu.

The new requirement that federal observers be present on every boat during a collection should help sort out the discrepancies between official and unofficial accounts of events at sea. But the agency's monitoring in other areas hasn't always proven to be thorough. Many of the inspectors who visit marine parks are dog and cat vets who inspect everything from chicken farms to fish hatcheries. They're so overworked they may visit a marine-mammal facility only once a year. In Florida, O'Barry discovered captive dolphins living in tanks at the Clearwater Marine Science Center, and at Ocean World in Fort Lauderdale, that were smaller than the minimum standards--a fact that had gone unnoticed by inspectors who had been visiting Clearwater for five years and Ocean World for 17. The fisheries service has closed down only one marine park, Sealand of Cape Cod, and then only after all of Sealand's dolphins had died.

Anyone hoping to use agency records to make informed decisions about the effects of capture and captivity on marine mammals will quickly discover another flaw in the system. Last June, reporters from the Orlando Sentinel found that the agency's records on bottlenose dolphins were so chaotic that it was nearly impossible to track the lives of individual animals. The fisheries service has four different tallies for the number of dolphins captured in the 1980s, and employees admit that the agency has never kept track of the number of capture-shock incidents.

"The bottom line is that the ability of the government or anyone else to completely and accurately trace the life of a captive dolphin is largely a matter of luck," the Sentinel concluded. And that knowledge has pushed some activists to take matters into their own hands.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1989, SEA Shepherd's Ben White organized a "Dolphin Brigade" of middle-class housewives, retired businessmen and college students with one thing in common: an evangelical zeal to set all captive dolphins free. On Aug. 8, the group converged at Mexico Beach, on the coast of the Florida panhandle near Panama City, where Gulf World was preparing to capture six bottlenose dolphins.

For three days the brigade trailed the capture boats with an inflatable boat and a small launch. When the trappers netted dolphins and attempted to haul them ashore, brigade members climbed into the net and stopped them. The conflict drew intense media coverage. Two days later, the Gulf World crew finally netted a pair of dolphins and loaded them onto a boat. Sea Shepherd had lost the battle, but it was only the first in what may be a protracted war.

In the fall, White assembled his team again, this time in Charlotte Harbor, Fla., where Jay Sweeney planned to trap six bottlenose dolphins for Baltimore's National Aquarium. This time the brigade fanned out through the community, alerting the media and local residents.

Almost overnight the citizens of Charlotte Harbor mobilized. "They took over the whole thing," says brigade member Ellen Mueller. "Everybody was out in their little boats watching for them." It became a statewide issue when Sweeney, trying to avoid the controversy, moved his operation to Tampa Bay, 100 miles to the north, where he captured two dolphins and transported them south to Hawk's Cay, a luxury resort in the Florida Keys. Sweeney's maneuver inflamed public opinion. Environmentalists descended on Hawk's Cay demanding freedom for the "Tampa Two." Baltimore got its dolphins, but Florida activists have made their coastline unattractive territory for dolphin catchers.

Activist groups have also begun to take legal action to force government agencies to do more to protect the animals. In 1989, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, the Animal Welfare Society, the Animal Welfare Protection Institute and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed lawsuits to try to block importations of Beluga whales from Canada and pseudo-orcas from Japan. Pressure from this same coalition has nudged the fisheries service into finally tightening the reins on parts of the cetacean industry.

The agency put the brakes on "swim with dolphins" operations after a series of public hearings last fall at which animal-rights activists expressed concerns about the stresses created when captive dolphins have to share their pools with as many as 30 humans a day. No new swim programs will be permitted until the agency has had a chance to study their long-term impact on captive dolphins.

The uproar stirred by activists has been great enough to make some trappers relocate to the Caribbean, outside of U.S. waters, where they can catch bottlenose for both the American and foreign markets, unfettered by fisheries service regulations. MAP recently opened a "swim with dolphins" facility on Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras, adjacent to a luxury resort that caters to American tourists. MAP's Solangi leaves open the possibility that it will also be used as the base for a capture operation.

But the abolitionists are hot on their trail. Last summer the Dolphin Rescue Brigade struck at the Treasure Key resort in the Bahamas, dismantling 333 feet of wire fencing in a dolphin pen and releasing six of 11 dolphins recently caught for the hotel's "swim with dolphins" program. Since then, O'Barry has been working to build an anti-captivity movement in the Bahamas.

The issue, says O'Barry, "is not so much the 400 captive dolphins in the 38 marine (facilities) in the United States. It's the 200 million people who have been miseducated, desensitized into thinking that's where those dolphins belong. . . . In a world where so much that is wild and free has already been lost to us, we must leave these beautiful mammals free. . . . They do us no harm, they wish us none, and we should let them alone."

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