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Flipping Out

Dolphins have a big problem: They’re not whales. And because they’re not, and have never been considered endangered, they don’t enjoy the strict protections enjoyed by other cetaceans listed under the Endangered Species Act. But the current boom in swim-with-the-wild-dolphins tours has prompted a complex dance between state and federal agencies about how to and who should protect a population that is not yet threatened but increasingly stressed out by adoring humans.

No one tracks the number of commercial dolphin swim tours out there, but marine mammal biologists from around the world say evidence is mounting that these increasingly popular excursions are having a harmful impact on dolphins. When dolphins are spotted during a tour, boats converge and plop their guests into the water. If dolphins try to avoid the swimmers, some companies herd them with kayaks. Recent studies from New Zealand and Hawaii have found that dolphins leave resting bays early or avoid areas altogether when high concentrations of swimmers are nearby.

Dolphins, like all wildlife, can ill afford to waste precious energy. Each night Hawaii’s dolphins swim hundreds of miles to forage for squid and small fish, then return at daybreak to a handful of shallow, sandy-bottomed bays and inlets to sleep and reenergize. These safe harbors allow them to keep an eye out for marauding sharks.

Peter T. Young, director for Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, says that the state has been told in “no uncertain terms” by NOAA Fisheries that cetacean protection is a federal issue regulated by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But proving that someone has violated the act is difficult, and changes to federal policies are notoriously slow. In June 2005 NOAA asked Congress to update the act to include greater protection against dolphin “harassment.” In addition, this past summer NOAA solicited public comments in hearings throughout Hawaii.

But Young, who says “we need immediate and aggressive action,” isn’t waiting. So he worked to restrict swimmers and boats from entering a critical dolphin bay, and the state passed a bill that places a moratorium on new launching and landing permits for some dolphin resting areas. The bill also authorizes an environmental impact study, although funding has yet to be allocated. Meanwhile, Young amended permit language to compel tour boats to keep the recommended 50 yards away from dolphin pods in bays or risk losing their permits. Says Chris Yates, an administrator with the Pacific Islands Regional Office of NOAA Fisheries: “The bottom line is that dolphins need to rest. They can’t rest when you are throwing water toys at their heads.”—Lynn Goya

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