Don't exploit dolphins: Say 'no' to a Coral World dolphinarium
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During the last 20 years, a growing number of zoos, aquariums, and marine theme parks in the United States and its territories have been closing their exhibits for whales and dolphins (cetaceans).
One after the other, dolphinariums - facilities that hold cetaceans to perform in shows or swim with customers - have been shuttered, most recently the one at the Minnesota Zoo. In the aftermath of the 2009 Academy-Award winning documentary "The Cove," which took a critical look at the capture and transport of live dolphins for marine theme parks, the general public has reached a new level of awareness about the suffering of cetaceans in captivity.
Recently, a handful of facilities have sought to oppose this trend.
After 20 years without an import into the United States of deliberately captured wild cetaceans for public display, the Georgia Aquarium, which currently holds four beluga whales, is proposing to import 18 more who have been wild-caught in Russia. The aquarium also opened a new dolphin exhibit last year, and a marine theme park in Mississippi, destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, is working hard to launch its dolphin shows once again.
Puerto Rico is considering a proposal for a new dolphinarium, and now, Coral World on St. Thomas wants to open a dolphinarium nnd conduct swim-with-dolphin encounters, which put both dolphins and swimmers at risk.
These dolphins would likely come from another island nation in the Caribbean, most likely the Bahamas, where the Atlantis resort took 17 dolphins from that demolished Mississippi facility and can probably spare some.
Revenue is a poor motivation for establishing a dolphinarium, although unfortunately, it is the typical one. Dolphins are not commodities or products - they are living animals, intelligent and social, and their well-being should be the only motivation for moving them from one place to another, as transport itself is highly stressful for these oceanic mammals.
While the economic well-being of St. Thomas and its citizens is a worthy concern, exploiting captive dolphins cannot and should not be the solution.
The Caribbean already has a large number of dolphinariums. St. Thomas shouldn't be a regressive copycat - it should instead join the progressive trend of the last two decades and focus on its unique natural beauty and attractions to bring in tourists.
Coral World has claimed that it may have to close its doors without this new attraction, but even if this dire prediction comes to pass, it need not be a negative for the island as a whole.
In fact, there is a better way. St. Thomas should promote sustainable eco-tourism ventures, which can include responsible marine life viewing, snorkeling, diving, and other activities where free-roaming wildlife can be enjoyed.
Humane Society International recently sponsored a billboard in St. Maarten - which is also evaluating a proposal to build a new dolphinarium - that promoted the enjoyment and appreciation of dolphins in their natural habitat.
The ocean is where these animals belong. The Wider Caribbean Region (an international Caribbean environmental union) has several cetacean species inhabiting its waters and has adopted a comprehensive action plan through the United Nations Environment Programme to protect them. Captive dolphin displays and swim-with attractions play no conservation role in that plan.
Neither the Caribbean nor the United States and its territories need another dolphinarium. St. Thomas should pursue its competitive advantage by working to ensure that the only dolphins in the Caribbean swim free in the ocean, not trapped behind nets.
- Naomi A. Rose is senior scientist at Humane Society International.