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October 23, 2007

Captures in Solomon Islands

Sustainability and animal welfare disregarded in dolphin trade

Humane Society International

  • Swimming dolphins. Adam White/iStockphoto

Update, August 2010: Though the Solomon Islands dolphin trade continues, it is under Significant Trade Review by the Animals Committee of CITES.

Although it lies thousands of miles from Panama, developments in this archipelago of islands in the South Pacific Ocean are directly tied to the situation in that Central American nation. Solomon Islands was the site of a highly controversial capture operation in 2003. Marine Exports Ltd. (MEL), in partnership with Wildlife International Network (WIN, the parent company of Ocean Embassy in Panama), captured approximately 100 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins in the waters around the islands in April and July of that year. There were no population estimates of this species in the region at the time (which remains the case today), but the Solomons government nevertheless gave permission for the captures. At least 28 dolphins were exported to Mexico, despite the fact that Solomon Islands was not at the time a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).(1) After considerable international pressure and condemnation over this ill-advised capture and trade, the Solomon Islands government eventually banned any further exports of live dolphins. The few remaining dolphins from the 2003 captures became the star attractions at a SWTD facility on Gavutu Island, owned and operated by MEL.

Staff of The HSUS/HSI and the other international NGOs who addressed the 2003 situation hoped our work was done there—we were unable to close the Gavutu facility, but it seemed that the capture operation was shut down for good, and the export ban was considered a major victory. We imagined MEL would be satisfied with the income from the Gavutu dolphinarium. It appears, however, that MEL's ambitions were always focused on the trade in live dolphins, not on the dolphinarium business, per se. After four years of relative quiet, MEL unexpectedly released the last remaining half dozen or so dolphins from the 2003 captures.(2) MEL then conducted a capture of new animals in late May or early June 2007. The number taken was originally reported as 20, but an on-site investigator informed us that there were as many as 50 new dolphins being held in the Gavutu pens in August 2007.

Our first suspicion was that these dolphins were destined for Ocean Embassy, as the capture proposal in Panama was meeting more and more resistance. However, further investigation suggested that this was unlikely, as the requirements under the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol of the Cartagena Convention for live dolphin trade into Panama were considerable obstacles.(3)

After weeks of efforts to prevent an export, 28 dolphins were shipped to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on October 17. Despite intensive lobbying of Dubai and Solomon Islands authorities by NGOs and scientists, as well as considerable media attention and pressure on the CITES Secretariat, the animals were transported because the paperwork was in order. Any substance behind the paperwork was completely lacking, but unfortunately the Precautionary Principle is still too often ignored in the wildlife trade.
The dolphins arrived at the brand-new Atlantis Palm resort, which is owned and operated by the same company that runs the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. So far, there are no reliable reports that any of the 28 dolphins has died, but the probability that there will be mortalities is very high, given the traumatic manner in which the animals are captured and maintained in Solomon Islands.

The NGO community, including The HSUS/HSI, is working on educating the authorities in Dubai as to why the United Arab Emirates should not have accepted these animals. There is still an opportunity to convince the government that it was the unwitting dupe of a commercial enterprise that has very little regard for sustainability, let alone animal welfare. Three dolphin corpses were discovered in a trash heap near the sea pens in Gavutu, Solomon Islands the day before the export, consistent with reports that some of the captured dolphins had died. Shamelessly, MEL(4) representatives denied any knowledge of the bodies and even accused local animal NGOs of planting them there to discredit MEL.

The Solomon Islands dolphins' health status is questionable, as the anti-bodies from two contagious and dangerous diseases (brucellosis and morbillivirus) were reported in the 2003 animals. But more importantly from a trade and CITES perspective, their capture cannot be considered sustainable. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) Cetacean Specialist Group (CSG) evaluated the situation in 2003 and has found no reason to alter its recommendation since. Given the lack of scientific data, the IUCN CSG believes it is impossible to conclude that these captures are not harming the population around Solomon Islands.

We are afraid the Solomon Islands government has taken an intransigent stand on this issue, but we must still try to persuade the public there that it is not a good idea to start a regular trade in live dolphins. MEL is encouraging local people in Gavutu and Honiara to "get into the dolphin trade" and even start dolphin farms! The future for the dolphins in the region will become very grim very quickly if this idea is taken up by even a few Solomon Islanders.

1. The Solomon Islands finally become a signatory to CITES in June 2007.

2. The release of these animals was puzzling, but it may have been done because they were sickly. The fate of dozens of other dolphins from the 2003 captures is unconfirmed, but local people tell us many of them died in the intervening four years.

3. These treaty obligations are also an argument against allowing captures in local waters.

4. MEL has apparently now been renamed Solomon Islands Marine Mammal Education Center and Exporters Ltd.