Senate committee to consider permit for Coral World dolphin exhibit today
Published: October 21, 2013
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ST. THOMAS - The permit for a controversial dolphin exhibit at Coral World Ocean Park will be heard today in the Senate Economic Development, Agriculture and Planning Committee.
The permit for the exhibit was approved by the Coastal Zone Management Committee in February and modified in May. It must be approved by the Legislature before the project can move forward.
The permit allows the construction of a $5.2 million, 70,000-square-foot interactive dolphin exhibit in Water Bay.
Some residents in the community are opposed to the project, concerned about the well-being of the animals, the water quality of the bay and the success of the planned project.
According to Coral World officials, the dolphin exhibit will draw an additional 25,000 to 35,000 visitors per year, add 20 to 25 new jobs at the park and contribute more than $4 million to the territory's economy.
At the CZM public hearing in December, Coral World General Manager Trudie Prior said the facility has lost more than $1 million a year in the last three years, and the dolphin encounter exhibit would help save the park.
According to the permit application, the dolphins will be kept in a large rectangular enclosure built in Water Bay, bordered by decking containing a viewing platform and low bleacher seating.
The decks that will make up the enclosure will measure about 300 feet by 250 feet.
An additional 40-foot buffer will be set up around the perimeter of the decking using a buoy line. The decking will be supported by 158 concrete pilings that will necessitate the removal and relocation of some corals and seagrass beds.
A stainless steel mesh will connect the dock on the surface to the ocean floor, keeping the dolphins in the 2-acre enclosure while allowing the natural currents of the bay to clean out the dolphin habitat.
The dolphin facility will take up about 5 percent of the surface area of Water Bay, according to Coral World's application.
Bathhouses and a two-story education center will be located on the land adjacent to the ocean exhibit. Coral World guests will travel to the dolphin habitat along a boardwalk from the main Coral World campus to the Water Bay area.
The education center will be a multipurpose building used for staff to give orientations to those who will be swimming with the dolphins. It also will provide facilities and emergency living quarters for the staff and medical personnel, storage for equipment and a changing area.
According to the CZM permit conditions, the facility can have only six dolphins while it monitors the quality of Water Bay for a one-year period. If the monitoring shows adequate water quality, additional dolphins can be brought in.
General curator Lee Kellar said the attraction legally can hold 20 dolphins, but Coral World will start with six dolphins and may go up to 10 in the first few years.
Healthy dolphins breed on their own once they reach maturity, and there would be a maternity pen available as part of the enclosure if needed, although Coral World officials have indicated they are not planning a breeding program.
If the dolphins are not feeling social or do not want to have human contact, a specially designed sanctuary pen also would be built as part of the 2-acre facility.
Many opponents to the project say they are concerned that such swim with the dolphin programs hold wild animals captive, forcing them to perform tricks for humans. They have voiced disgust at the practice of capturing wild dolphins for such exhibits, which they say often results in the slaughter of the unwanted animals.
Opponents also have cited many dolphin exhibits around the world that have closed or been shut down by their governments, for either mistreatment of animals or lack of public interest.
Coral World officials have said that the animals would come to the territory as a family group, after being bred in captivity and being very familiar with human interaction. Coral World officials have said they would not be capturing wild animals to populate the exhibit.
At the hearing in December, several Coral World employees said getting visitors to interact with animals increases environmental awareness and teaches the importance of conservation.
In addition to CZM permit ratification by the V.I. Legislature, the project must be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries program must approve the importation of the dolphins, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture must approve a separate permit for the animals as well.
Today's hearing begins at 4 p.m. in the Ottley Legislative Hall on St. Thomas.
- Contact reporter Aldeth Lewin at 714-9111 or email email@example.com.