Fisheries industry at stake as activists threaten to withdraw ‘dolphin-safe’ label

The Maldives tuna industry’s dolphin-safe reputation is under threat after US-based non-profit environmental organisation, Earth Island Institute (EII), launched a campaigns with ECOCARE Maldives against a proposed dolphin lagoon.

The lagoon is an educational and recreational program proposed by famous tennis player Amir Mansoor,  involving 6-8 trained dolphins imported from the Caribbean.

EII, which issues the dolphin-safe label to 93 percent of the world’s tuna market – including 14 Maldivian companies – has said it will rescind the label from government-owned canneries should the government approve Mansoor’s program. EII claims to have already warned foreign buyers and distributors of its concerns.

Mansoor and staff accuse EII and ECOCARE of “threatening” the fishing industry, while their opponents maintain that importing dolphins will damage the Maldives’ “Always Natural” image, as well as endanger marine life. Both sides have accused the other of corrupt dealings.

Meanwhile, cannery and government officials are slowly siding with the activists, citing legal and economic reasons.

A November 3, 2011 EII press statement read, “the Maldives tuna industry has adopted a policy to ensure that no dolphins are ever killed in tuna nets.”

“That Dolphin Safe standard is respected all over the world”, Dolphin Safe program Associate Director Mark Berman told Minivan News. “If the Maldives’ government allows live dolphins to be imported into their country, the Dolphin Safe reputation of the Maldives will be jeopardised. Major tuna importing nations will not buy tuna from governments that harm dolphins.”

Senior management officials of Dolphin Lagoon Maldives claim the goal is to provide dolphins born and raised in captivity with a healthy lifestyle, while educating and entertaining the public.

“The proposed lagoon is the largest in the world for the small number of dolphins that will inhabit it,” said a source involved in establishing the lagoon, who requested anonymity. The dolphins would be “taken for a ‘walk’” on a daily basis and allowed to swim away from the group if they so desired. The choice to return to the lagoon after an excursion would be voluntary, the source stated.

The program’s website contends that people are critical to conservation – ”but they will only become engaged in helping to solve the problems if they get to understand something about the problems… through knowing the dolphins.” School programs are also in the works.

“We need something new in tourism because the Chinese don’t want to pay for bars, scuba, and safari,” said Mansoor, who said he believed opposition to the project was “motivated by jealousy”.

EII and ECOCARE meanwhile maintain that “captivity is captivity.”

Dolphin safe

A letter sent from the lagoon program to EII staff claimed, “Mr Berman is deliberately using the ‘ dolphin safe ‘ label provided by his organisation to the tuna fisheries companies in the Maldives as a tool for his campaign. Confusing the real meaning of the ‘dolphin safe’ label and trying to make people believe that dolphin safe also means that the country has no dolphin program.”

According to the EII website, the companies licensed with the dolphin-safe label must meet the following criteria:

  • No intentional chasing, netting or encirclement of dolphins during an entire tuna fishing trip;
  • No use of drift gill nets to catch tuna;
  • No accidental killing or serious injury to any dolphins during net sets;
  • No mixing of dolphin-safe and dolphin-deadly tuna in individual boat wells (for accidental kill of dolphins), or in processing or storage facilities;
  • Each trip in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP) by vessels 400 gross tons and above must have an independent observer on board attesting to the compliance with points (1) through (4) above

Lagoon program officials asked EII staff, “Where is the relationship between having a dolphin lagoon, as proposed for the Maldives, and the purpose these labels are used for? Where does it say in order to have a dolphin-safe label the country can not have captive born dolphin programs? In fact, if they are related, why is the same organisation that is providing these labels to the Maldives still supporting other countries that have dolphins in captivity like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China Portugal, Spain, and most shocking of all, even companies in countries such as Japan, Peru and Brazil which kill dolphins for food?”

Mansoor claimed these and similar questions sent to EII have not been answered. Speaking to Minivan News, Berman pointed out that all companies licensed in the US, Japan and other listed countries are privately operated and “don’t support trade in dolphins.”

Berman added that EII has successfully campaigned against several dolphin programs in the US, including a dolphinarium in South Carolina and dolphin parks at Great America and Six Flags Amusement Park in Texas.

While EII licenses all Maldives’ tuna canneries, only government-owned companies – Felivaru, Koodoo and Maldives Industrial Fishing Corporation (MIFCO) – would be affected by a government decision, Berman said.

Point 12 of the EII licensing form states that a licensed fisheries’ “subsidiaries or affiliates worldwide do not participate in, or profit from, nor is the company connected to companies involved in, whaling operations, dolphin drive fisheries, live capture and or traffic of marine mammals for zoo and aquarium trade.”

The government – which is not itself a company- does not subscribe to an official dolphin-safe policy. However EII would consider its decision to reflect directly on tuna canneries’ dolphin-safe licenses.

“If the government allows the import of dolphins, these companies will violate the dolphin-safe policy,” Berman said, warning that “if I tell Thai Union tomorrow to stop buying tuna from Koodoo, they will cancel their orders.”

Who’s in charge?

The lagoon program has been shuttled around the ministries of Environment, Finance, Fisheries and Tourism, according to Fisheries Minister Ibrahim Didi. It has not yet been approved.

According to Didi, program management did not agree with Cabinet’s assessment of the program as 100 percent tourism, and “it was only by chance that I was at a meeting and found that the program concerned fisheries”.

On January 3, EII’s executive director David Phillips sent an email to Didi urging the government to reject the lagoon program.

Echoing EII’s claim that allowing imported dolphins would open the market for other projects, threatening the indigenous population and even inviting the ‘dark side’ of the dolphin trade – poachers – Didi said “some legal issues have been raised because the program violates Fisheries’ and Environment laws.”

The Maldives Ministry of Fisheries maintains good relations with EII and Mark Berman, State Minister Dr Hussein Rasheed said last week.

However, “the Maldivian government is not a client to the EII and we are considering the needs of the industry and remaining aware of the market,” he said, adding that regardless of the dolphin-safe label, no dolphin has been reported injured or killed during a Maldivian tuna fishing trip.

Rasheed claimed the government would weigh the Maldives’ economic base – tourism and fisheries – against the concept of the Maldives as ‘always natural’.

“Any decision has economic complications – approval of the lagoon program will have a cost, and disapproval will have a cost. We will not compromise the liability of our tuna industry. But then again, we have to move along and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. This is how society progresses. We must also look at the long term impacts of a decision on our economy and our image in the world. Everything has to be fair,” he explained.

Meanwhile, government canneries are sheepishly stunned.

MIFCO’s Sales and Marketing Director Adley Ismail said the fishery took pride in its dolphin-safe status, but “don’t see the relationship between the tourism industry and our practices.”

“In a sense, we are on [Berman’s] side because we don’t want the label removed,” he said, while Koodoo Fisheries’ Managing Director Abdulla Thasleem noted that without the label the premium on canned tuna would drop.

MIFCO recently entered a joint venture with Thai company Mahachai Marine Products, however Berman said that without the dolphin-safe label it would be forced to sell its shares.

Felivaru’s Head of Production Solah Mohamed put his trust in EII. “In my opinion, a dolphin park is not a good idea – it would indirectly harm the fisherman. If EII is against it we should be too because with their power, EII can do many things,” he said.

ECOCARE Chairman Mohamed Zahir said he would encourage and “pressure” the fisheries, with which Berman met on Monday, to write letters to the government opposing the lagoon.

The origins of ‘dolphin-safe

In the late 1980s the world’s three largest tuna companies – Starkist, Bumblebee and Chicken of the Sea – jointly boycotted tuna caught using methods threatening to dolphins, killing off 80 percent of the market between 1988 and 1990. That year, Starkist partnered with EII to promote dolphin safety monitoring in the tuna fishing industry; in late 1990 the Maldives’ only government fishery at the time, MIFCO, signed the dolphin-safe tuna fishing pact.

EII’s dolphin-safe label, one of six such labels, has become a standard adhered to by 90 percent of the tuna fishing industry world-wide. According to Berman, countries that haven’t subscribed to the label, including Mexico and Venezuela, have virtually no market access.

For this reason, however, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruled in September 2011 that American dolphin-safe tuna labels are “overly restrictive” in comparison to international standards and violate free trade agreements with Mexico. The US appealed the decision on January 20, 2011.

‘Always Natural?’

Maldives’ centuries-old ‘pole and line’ fishing method is both dolphin-safe and a source of national pride. Zahir argues that Mansoor’s program would violate this tradition.

“We oppose the program because it is against our culture; it would introduce the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin which is an alien species and could transmit diseases to marine life; it doesn’t support education; and it’s contrary to the Maldives’ ‘Always Natural’ brand,” he said, noting that “it would be very easy for EII to buy an ad to display all over the world that reads ‘Always Natural?’ instead.”

The veterinarian handling the dolphins slotted for import, Thomas H. Reidarson , said the dolphins would undergo standard tests as well as extensive screening “to insure that none are capable of transmitting diseases to wild dolphins with whom they might interact.” Program management added that the tourism industry – which draws increasing numbers of speed boats, sea planes, divers and waste – is threatening the Maldives’ dolphins’ natural habitat.

Zahir dismissed the claims as “an excuse to have captive dolphins” while Berman retorted that any health certificates are “likely bought”.

“We can take this to the international media, but we don’t want to give the country a bad name”, Zahir explained, adding that “the fisherman’s union has said it would be no problem to mobilise fisherman to march in the streets of Male’ if the label is withdrawn.”

Berman warned that distributors and foreign partners of the Maldives’ government fisheries have already begun looking for new sources following conversations with EII. “It’s a premium product, and the companies are acting fast to guarantee their business interests,” he said.

Even if private canneries retain their dolphin-safe labels, Berman estimates they would be unable to meet the huge consumer demand displaced onto their operations once government canneries close their doors. “Felivaru and Koodoo have already said they would have to close without the label,” he said.

Stuck at Odds

While EII and ECOCARE are strongly opposed to the lagoon program, they have yet to have any direct dialogue.

“We don’t care who is behind it, we don’t have to go and ask why or how, we aren’t journalists who have to do a check and balance of what is right or wrong,” Zahir said. “We only respond to the government gazette.”

Correspondence obtained by Minivan News indicates that EII staff did not respond to a majority of emails from lagoon program staff, who challenged the EII’s threat. Berman explained, “our business is with the government and the fishing industry.”

“There is no common ground in a dialogue with dolphin traders. It’s like talking to an orangutan – what’s the point?” he said, adding that invitations to debate with various captive dolphin programs in the US have never received a response.

Berman and ECOCARE did attend the web launch of Dolphin Lagoon Maldives near the Tsunami Memorial on Monday night. Berman later told Minivan News that he attended the event as a “peaceful observer” but was “shoved, threatened and a bit manhandled” by protesters at the launch.

Alleging that the aggressors were “hired thugs”, Berman said the behavior was “typical of the captive dolphin industry, they resort to violence and intimidation. Our policy is if it’s too dangerous for us to work, we pull out – with the dolphin-safe label,” he added.

Mansoor, who said he did not witness the incident, was aware of an aggressive verbal exchange “but there was no physical confrontation.” He claimed the activists had been arguing their point of view with bystanders at the launch. “They came to create a scene. I gave clear instructions to my staff not to make a scene because I suspected they would want one to give us bad publicity,” he said.

According to Mansoor the Cabinet has approved his program, however he is working with the President’s Office against EII’s demands. He argued that EII’s claim about its contract “is all crap” and is being used to “threaten” the fisheries.

Correction: Previously, this article stated that dolphins would be free to leave the lagoon and are recalled from excursions by a whistle call. In fact, dolphins would be free to roam during daily excursions after which they return voluntarily.


29 thoughts on “Fisheries industry at stake as activists threaten to withdraw ‘dolphin-safe’ label”

  1. President Nasheed's government made the decision to welcome the dolphin lagoon so they wont give a damn about what the activists say or its implications to our tuna industry. Voting for President Nasheed seems to be the worse mistake that we ever made.

  2. lets see how our environment loving president will react to this! i am eagerly waiting for it!

  3. Amir Mansoor probably still lives in the 19th century thinking that tourists come to Maldive to drink alcohol. Is it because his alcohol business has dropped with chinese market?

    Everyone seems to have two faces these days.First of all Lily is the biggest distributor of beer and south african wines in maldives,Lily enjoys the biggest profitability in liqour business and slowly buying out brands and small bond operators. How ironic to Amirs claim that chinese dont drink, and therefore giving them a dolphin show would boost business!
    Bullocks! just another greedy business magnet. look at his new Merry brown, outlet. Are the ingredients original, is the burger ban authentic to its international standard? City bakery cheap tasteless bans and who knows what else is fake. The chicken is cold and not crispy...just another local joint.
    I guess whoever allowed this senseless idea in the government has his own personal gains.
    1)Are we Maldivians that crazy to have a dolphin park yet we see them naturally everyday swimming by and with boats? I wouldn't be surprised Amir may want to import Pandas to attract Chinese money.
    2)Are we crazy to loose international licenses and quality respect to our tuna products for the sake of satisfying a few visitors?

    If we had two or three demonstrations against this Amir Dolphin Craze, covered by international media, we would sell more tuna, have a better respect and attract international buyers.

    For those misinformed, chinese spend more on F&B than any other nationality. It is the approach, the style and the professionalism which Lily Beach and other Lily resorts dont have...only resorts Amir probably visits.

    If the president wants respect internationally especially after his environment rhetoric, then he better throw this silly idea into the bin immediately! Amir is an accountant and businessman, not a marine specialist.

  4. A BIG 'NO' to the 'Dolphin Lagoon' !!

    What madness makes us even consider such a stupid idea??

    Maldives - Always Natural...that's who we are and who we shall be! We don't need cheap theatrics to attract tourists to this country.

    What makes the Maldives special and unique is our 'total natural experience' and differentiating our product from the rest! That's why the Maldives is a 'luxury' destination.

    We can't be everything to every body. We don't need to! We sell our product to those people who can afford.

    We are not Goa, Hikaduwa(Sri Lanka) or the Red Sea Coast. Maldives is a 'premium' destination and should stay that way. We will earn more as a nation by targeting the affluent and keeping the arrivals of tourists under a certain number. Its good for our environment too. Let us practice what we preach.

    A destination cannot be for the masses and be special. Simple logic. Garuda watches vs. Rolex! In any case, whoever told you that the Chinese don't spend doesn't know what he or she is talking about. China has over a billion people including a huge number of the rich people. And not all Chinese are attracted to cheap gimmicks.

    We should not copy other countries to introduce unnatural 'cheap shows' involving animals and marine life. We have the world's largest natural aquarium in our oceans and lagoons as it is. Let us preserve them!

    President Nasheed can keep this judge at the military base but please do not approve this stupid project!

  5. Pointless making rational arguments.

    The government has demonstrated that its their way or the highway.

    Our country has shifted towards a dictatorship with gradual restrictions on free speech, freedom of movement and work being implemented almost every day.

    Meanwhile the international community remains silent as the UK justifies their sponsorship of the current regime as a measure to achieve geopolitical goals against terrorism.

    The truth on the ground is very far from the irresponsible and clearly propagandist rhetoric popularized by a lot of international media outlets.

    The current government has made pacts with several so-called fundamentalists. They allowed our education system to be geared towards fundamentalist views because they needed the Adalat Partys support to form a government. They allowed the Islamic Foundation of Maldives to run rampant across the nation because the organization acts as a government mouthpiece at times.

    Meanwhile the government makes baseless accusations against political parties such as Adalat and PPM which base their membership drives on religiously conservative rhetoric. Amnesty International has recently called this approach outdated. While the current government lacks the support to remain in power without the use of military force, Western powers gleefully skip around promoting Nasheed who is as popular in the Maldives as the bubonic plague.

  6. Semi-Domesticate dolphins, and let them roam free.

    It has been done and it can be done here. That would be much better rather than bringing a trained circus dolphin from somewhere else.

  7. If you want to export your fish you have to agree to the rules of the importing countries. This is a wrong move, which would be detrimental to our exports.

  8. This is the only way meeemu zaviyani group get paid from their oversea donors. That's their livelihood. They are trying to show their paymasters that they are doing work to justify their payments.

  9. I would love to see this lagoon happening in the Maldives. We can't afford like Mr.Berman to go around the world to see dolphins up close and play with it.

  10. I am against captive dophins, but I do think Maldives are facing a bigger and much more urgent problem: waste management !!
    Unfortunately,it's not as "glam" as a dolphin and will much less publicity, so no ones pays attention to it... except the toursits...Be careful: the word is out !! (tv shows, articles in the press back in Europe).
    I hope the govt soon realises that a mountain of trash will damage the "eco" image of the country more deeply and durably than a couple of captive dolphins...
    And no need of big debates for a solution here: start by putting some bins in Male' and educate pple !!!

  11. well i don't see there is any relation between fisheries and tourism industry on this project. this is a 100 percent tourism sector attraction. i don't see why foreigners come here and withdrew there logo's and anti campaign for this project. there is thousands and thousands of dolphins around us...did any of u have ever touched them or experience the communication between a human and dolphin. i give a Big YES for the project. GO Amir Go

  12. If this proposed dolphin park goes ahead, there will be danger of direct action 'Greenpeace' style to attain the release of the dolphins, I say free all enslaved dolphins, give them the entire Indian ocean rather than a large lagoon, and let the Chinese chase after them around the ocean rather than a lagoon, would be more exciting, I suggest let them play find the groups of wild and free dolphins, always natural.

  13. Getting down some dolphins from Atlantic will create a new trend in the maldives.

    Currently when fisherman's excidently catch a dolphin they release it back. but once they build a so called dolphin care center, they will have a marketing stunt to gain fisherman's to them saying "don't worry we will take care of it"
    In maldives we have Spinner dolphins, if they are kept in captivity they will die less then a day, as they tend to travel long distance with speed.

    it's not EII who is threthening the fisheries industry of the maldives. it's one shameless guy called Amir Mansoor who is trying to kill one of our nerve centers of this fragile economy.

    if he does it he would go in to history as one of the guys who tried to kill the fisheries industry.

    I know money can do anything in this world and specially in the country. before there was Diver Association of Maldives, but i guess they have been bought out by money.

    EII's stand are clear in this article.

    Chinese are drinkers and Amir needs to get his facts right and come to reality that they are best spenders travelling the world. they don't go to countries to see stupid shows. what they want is culture and hospitality. the only barrier with them is language and we can break it with our warm hospitality.

  14. It seems to me that EII is blackmailing the fishery industry and true to the spirit of the opposition propagandists, they are blaming President Nasheed for this?

    What a laugh.

    And blackmailing for what? There is no slaughter, and which Maldivian fishery company is fishing 3km from Male'? So how is there any impact?

    There is no logic here. Its just a case of "If you do not do as I say, I will kill you". Way to go MZ !!!

  15. Its not like this is the only thing that's been done in the Maldives against the environment. The dolphin lagoon is not yet built but look how the Maldivians are reacting to this. First go free the animals in the pet shops and the parrots in captivity in half of the houses in Male' and the fish in fish tanks in EVERY FREAKING HOUSE in Maldives. I don't get the Maldivian's logic. There's surely something other than the "environment" you guys are fighting for.

  16. I am against the Dolphin park because i FEEL that it is inhumane, it just feels really sick.

    I think its a good business idea though for the short term.

    But it still feels sick.

  17. I don’t see why we can’t accommodate this project. We have so many dolphins in our seas around us, we see them everyday and nobody talked about the damage it can bring to the fisheries industry.
    “Always natural”, believe me there is nothing natural about Maldives, not anymore. Look at the new resorts that are being built. Look at all sand dug out to make new land. The corals are permanently damaged. I don’t see these so called environment friendly guys like Breman and Zahir say anything about this. These guys have their own agenda. It is very likely that Mr. Breman is gulping money from an environment charity to do all this.

  18. wonder why so called environmentalists arn't protecting the WhaleSharks and the disappearing mantas due to overcrowded diving. Why are tourists allowed to swim with the whales sharks snapping pictures, and invading their habitat. If its ok for divers to do so.. .why can't a non-diver have the pleasure of swimming with a dolphin....

    I fully support this... maldives needs other activities not just to attract tourism but to have something fun and exciting to do here

  19. Eleanor Johnstone why don't you report about the protests the opposition is having every night in Male' for the past 10 days now?

  20. I say free the crocodile at children's park first. I think because it won't attract the international media to this kind of small stories.
    I support the dolphin lagoon. We need new attractions in Maldives.

  21. Trust Minivan news to completely ignore current local events of Maldives and focus on some obscure issue.
    Truth is that "President" Nasheed chose to advocate environmental issues to facilitate awarding projects to his brother Nashid. Talk about transparency!

  22. First the islands are sinking, the tourist industry is sinking fast now the fishing industry is sinking. The Maldives is in big trouble.

  23. Me as a foreign bystander I am very surprised that the Maldives are letting somebody like Berman, an American, interfere with national matters like this.

    The whole argument I do not understand. Here we are in the Maldives fishing tuna with polar lines, the safest you can be when it comes to not causing harm to wild dolphins and yet Mr Berman is trying to threaten the fisheries sector. They should be supported instead of threatened!!! Isn't that what he is supposed to do with his dolphin safe logo? Maldives is a sample to other countries, countries which use netting and may not kill wild dolphins thanks to Mr Berman perhaps but what about all the other bycatch, other sealife that gets caught in the nets and killed because of it?

    Since when is the government going to let some foreigner tell them what to do?

    Who is paying for his expensive trip to the Maldives? I would suppose his sponsors. And why are they sponsoring him ... to protect wild dolphins. So which wild dolphins is he trying to protect when the dolphin project is bringing in captive born dolphins? I would raise some serious questions if I were one of his sponsors.

    Why does he not come up with a serious plan to stop the intentional yearly killing of dolphins in Japan amongst others instead of putting his effort and money into threatening the Maldives fishery sector? Where is the logic to all of this? It really beats me.

    It looks to me that a lot of politics and jealousy is going on amongst the Maldivians themselves if I look at the remarks, since most of them have nothing to do with dolphins anymore.

  24. What Berman has said about him being manhandled at the website launching is an outright LIE. I was there and saw it all very closely. It was Meemu Zaviyani AND Berman with their team trying to disrupt the event.

    During a heated verbal debate Meemu Zaviyani mentioned he was very local in saying NO to Hulhumale' reclamation project. What a bastard the man is trying to block shelter of thousands of people.

    Now these thugs are hell bent on jeopordizing another well meant project for locals and tourists.

    Get a life Berman and Meemu Zaviyani

  25. "Berman lie" Could you just sit on one of the lovely beach y your self and think about whats happening to this earth. What is happening to our fishing industry, what is happening to your kids( If you have kids.)...Mind you, The whole world is going against animal captivity...

    You don't have slightest idea how the nature works, You have no idea how you were born...Even In Quruan it says to take care of your earth." Respect Your earth". Think about it,... Animals have rights As much as you have right to live in this earth. If Animals don't live in this earth, you won't be here to comment blaming other innocent(until they are proven guilty) people...

  26. Stop trying to commercialise everything. Stop trying to squeeze a dollar out of a dolphin. Stop being so greedy. Maldives is losing every ounce of value it has by resorting to this filthy greed. Dolphins have been appreciated for their intelligence, and the beauty, elegance and grace they display. The rare sighting of dolphins dancing in their natural habitat gives hundreds of people so much joy and this is the reason that this creature gets its due love and respect from us humans.

    Make them your circus clowns and watch the ignorant populace slowly throw away whichever values they have instilled for the lives of these creatures. This project will definitely be the beginning of the end for dolphins in the Maldives.

    Mr Nasheed has a chance to show the world if he is a man who backs his words with actions. Or is he just another empty drum beating loud?


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