By Kim Robson:
Hawaii’s Spinner dolphins are nocturnal – they hunt for food at night and then come closer to shore during the day to rest, socialize and nurture their young. Unfortunately, daytime is when tour groups interact with the dolphins. Spinners are famous for their acrobatic displays, leaping from the water and spinning along their longitudinal axis as they soar through the air.
Federal regulators are proposing a widespread ban on swimming with Hawaii’s Spinner dolphins to allow the nocturnal creatures to rest during the day. The National Marine Fisheries Service proposal was announced on Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. It would allow for some limited exceptions, for instance, when dolphins sometimes approach people on their own.
The proposed rules would prohibit approaching or swimming within 50 yards of Hawaiian Spinner dolphins. The National Marine Fisheries Service says that daily human interaction diminishes the dolphins’ rest and creates stress for the animals.
Swimming with dolphins is a valuable source of revenue for the tourism industry in Hawaii. These rules would severely impact tour groups’ standard practices, such as approaching the mammals by boat and snorkeling with them.
According to NOAA, “Resident populations of Hawaiian spinner dolphins use Hawaii’s nearshore waters to rest each day after feeding in deep waters all night. In recent years these dolphins have faced intense pressure from increasing dolphin-viewing activities. Surrounded by people and vessels throughout the day, the dolphins’ rest and recuperation can be disrupted. NOAA Fisheries is concerned that these chronic disruptions will negatively affect the health and fitness of individual dolphins, leading to negative effects on the already small resident populations in the main Hawaiian Islands.”
The proposal noted that “chronic disturbance to the MHI’s [Main Hawaiian Islands] resident Spinner dolphins could ultimately lead to habitat displacement and/or long term impacts to their individual fitness.”
Tour operators are furious. “It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Nancy Sweatt, owner of Dolphin Journeys and a United States Coast Guard captain, of the proposed federal ban. “When the dolphins don’t want to be with us, they won’t participate.” She maintains that education is more effective than regulation and that the ban would hobble dolphin tourism in Hawaii.
The potential ban would affect all waters within two nautical miles of the Hawaiian Islands and certain areas located between the islands of Lanai, Maui, and Kahoolawe.
There are several exceptions to the proposed rules, including any person inadvertently coming within 50 yards of a Spinner dolphin, or a situation where staying within 50 yards of the animal is necessary to avoid an imminent or serious threat.
With the proposed rule comes a 60-day period in which the NOAA Fisheries will accept public comments, which could affect the proposal. The final rule will likely be decided within a year.