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.


‘Dolphin Lagoon’ to offer conservation, education, recreation

The government’s decision to lease a lagoon to a dolphin habitation and family recreation project proposed by top tennis player Amir Mansoor will not force the marine creatures into captivity, and will support conservation efforts for one of the ocean’s most personable yet at-risk inhabitants.

On October 4, the Cabinet deliberated on a paper submitted by the Finance Ministry to lease a lagoon, location unspecified, for a dolphin habitation and training center.

While program specifics have not been officially released, an individual who has participated in such programs elsewhere and is familiar with the Maldives’ project informed Minivan News that the lagoon project is as much a conservation effort with educational motives as it is a recreational enterprise.

Correcting local media’s use of the word “trainer”, the source said the project will create “an open water program during which the dolphins will accompany the care takers on daily unstructured excursions,” and defined the role of caretaker as “taking a dog for a walk. This isn’t a Seaworld enterprise, with hoops and balls for public entertainment.”

While the lagoon program does not aim to put dolphins on display for commercial purposes, the source acknowledged that “it is an industry, you can’t deny that. People want to swim with dolphins. But this program is saying, ‘make it sensible.'”

Demonstrations will be offered but sources say they will be educational, not commercial.

“The demonstrations will show what dolphins are capable of, their speed, their use of eco-location, and other details. It will be fun, but education is the goal. Many people don’t know the basic facts of a dolphin’s lifestyle,” said source.

She added that reachout programs will be established with local public schools, handicapped organisations and orphanages.

The site is also being planned as “a place to spend the day,” featuring billiards, table tennis, photography, a restaurant, and play areas. With daily ferries from Male’, the cost will be friendly to locals.

“Above all, we’re trying to offer both locals and expatriates something to do. The dolphin program is a part of this larger recreational plan,” she summarized.

Freedom: the benchmark for success

The dolphin program includes two lagoons: a 1 kilometre living area surrounded by nets and allowing for free flow of water and fish, and a second, much larger area for excursions. The design is intended to simulate a natural habitat.

“The proposed lagoon is the largest for the small number of dolphins that will inhabit it in the world,” said one source. “It’s so spacious that if the dolphins don’t want to participate in an activity or hang around divers, they can just swim off. The philosophy is, ‘we’ll reward what you like, but you ignore what you don’t like’.”

The program follows a blueprint first attempted by the United States Navy in the 1960s. Since then, several conservation-based facilities have opened in the Caribbean with consistent levels of success.

Freedom is a critical benchmark: “Since the dolphins accompany trainers on daily excursions to the open ocean, it is clear to most people that the dolphins are free to leave or choose to return ‘home’,” said Director of Dolphins and Programs for the Curacao Dolphin Academy and President of the Southern Caribbean Cetacean Network (SCCN) George Kieffer.

Dolphins have allegedly exhibited natural behavior in these facilities including hunting, breeding and social ranking.

Though given the option to swim off, sources observe that dolphins willingly return to their enclosed living space when excursions are over. “They like to be intrigued and challenged, so the programs are always offering new exercises. If you were to put dolphins in a lagoon and just feed them, they would be very unhappy. As long as the challenges keep coming, the dolphins appear to be happy.”

“Make it sensible”

While some activists criticise any form of animal captivity, others suggest that open water programs are protecting the dolphin species.

Kieffer said programs similar to that proposed in the Maldives receive significantly less criticism than marine parks or inland aquariums, and nearly all negative claims have been “demonstrably untrue.”

“The success would appear to be measured by all three [existing facilities] having not only self-sustaining breeding populations, but increasing populations,” he said. As these populations surpass facility capacities, others such as the Maldives’ lagoon program are being endorsed.

“Once these animals have been bred and raised in open water programs, they can’t be released into the wild,” said a source familiar with the programs. “It’s better to find a way to keep them healthy. The program in the Maldives is good because these dolphins need a place to go.”

Rather than capture and train indigenous bottlenose dolphins, the Maldives’ lagoon program will import dolphins already bred in similar facilities. The bottlenose does well in human care, said Kieffer, preferring “small numbers within a social group and shallow water. [Maldives’] local dolphins such as the pan-tropical spotted dolphin and the spinner dolphin prefer deep water and hundreds of individuals within a large moving social group.”

Minivan asked Kieffer if the world’s oceans are safe for dolphins.

“Sadly no; they are vulnerable to the swift and diverse pressures human activities are placing on the sea. Dolphins and whales have endured over 50 million years of the ocean’s natural stresses and strains. And now in just the past several decades, our impact on the seas has rendered them fragile.

“Dolphins are a charismatic species that attracts human attention. The popularity of aquariums, zoos, and interactive programs highlights this point. When people have the opportunity to intimately view and interact with dolphins, they have the potential to form a cognitive and emotional connection – one that has the potential to arouse individuals to care for their new-found friends and become involved in marine causes.”

Local objections

Reports of the ‘dolphin lagoon’ were earlier published by local daily Haveeru. Individuals affiliated with the program said responses have not been positive.

Local dive magazine Scuba Tribe subsequently launched a campaign against the dolphin lagoon on social media outlets Facebook and Twitter.

Scuba Tribe’s argument begins by stating that “little is known how this project would proceed.”

“A training center for dolphins or a lagoon where tourists would come up to see them by paying a fee to see them is out of the question as they all can see them in the wild every single day. Local resorts and dive centers have regular dolphin watching cruises that happen on a daily basis,” reports the Scuba Tribe website.

A source familiar with diving practices in the Maldives claimed that many tour boats are not trained to approach dolphins, and that excessive diving in popular sites such as Hanifaru Bay has pushed fish populations away from these locations.

“Tourists can be seen jumping by the dozens into the water, pushing to see the animals,” she said, noting that in August up to 17 boats could be seen at Hanifaru at one time. “This year was really disappointing for diving, because it was out of control. Why aren’t groups like Scuba Tribe worrying about this? Crowding on dive sites, disappearance of species like the whale shark from their favored areas, these are issues that are affecting the natural world and will soon affect the tourism industry as well. Everyone is involved.”

Hanifaru reef became a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 2009 and a Core Area of the Biosphere Reserve after “intense tourism activities…threatened [the site’s] sustainability.” Activities are now subject to a site management plan.

Dolphins are most challenged by the impact of human activity in their habitat. Pollution, entanglement in fishing gear, collision with boats and unsafe fishing practices are a few examples. Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society cites coastal development, particularly for marine tourism, and chemical pollution as leading threats.

“Dolphins are also killed unintentionally in gill net, drift net, and purse-seine fishing practices around the world,” Kieffer said.

Purse seining, a fishing method whereby a vessel deploys an enormous net to encircle and capture entire schools of fish at once, “is very cost effective but indiscriminate, and generates a large amount of bycatch,” wrote Minivan News in a recent article. The practice is allegedly done in waters fringing on the Maldives’ national borders. “Nothing escapes,” Solah Mohamed, Head of Production for the Maldives’ Felivaru fish cannery, said of the practice.

Director of environmental NGO Bluepeace Ahmed Ikram said the NGO did not have a position on the lagoon program but was soliciting public opinion.

“We are aware of the project and are publicizing it through Facebook and Twitter to see what the public response is. Then we will analyze and discuss the results in the next week.”

Ikram said that the Maldives’ many environmentally-relevant projects has kept Blue Peace busy and made it difficult to focus on individual projects, such as the lagoon.

“This seems to be part of a progression of projects aimed at eco-tourism which do not quite live up to expectations,” he surmised. “It looks like everything is for sale, and most of it is for tourism.”

The downside of publicity

Publicity is a driving factor in Maldives tourism, however one source suggested that it can be too much.

“National Geographic did a report on Hanifaru Bay, and now tourists are all coming and saying, ‘We want to go to Hanifaru.’ As a result, it became a protected area. To protect the dive site, you have to control traffic.”

In 2009, documentary film “The Cove” turned the international eye on Japan’s dolphin hunting culture and industry. Its implications for dolphin centers have proved damaging.

According to the film, Japanese fishermen entrap dolphins and sell them to international buyers, some of whom work for marine entertainment organisations such as Seaworld. The remaining dolphins are slaughtered and sold as food, often labeled as fish or whale meat, “The Cove” website alleges.

Dolphin meat has been debated as unsafe for human consumption.

A source argues that the film’s implication that dolphin centers around the world cooperate with the Japanese industry is inaccurate and harmful to legitimate conservation programs.

“Dolphins which are exported or sold for business purposes go through very strict documentation procedures,” she said. “None of the parks in the US, Caribbean or Europe have dolphins that originated in Japan, and they have the proper paperwork to prove it.”

The source added that the film’s message has made dolphin program development more controversial. “If we did import dolphins from Japan, we would be accused of sustaining slaughter,” she said.

Minivan News subsequently learned that the Maldives’ lagoon dolphins will not come from Japan, and will be examined by American scientists to ensure that local wild dolphins are not negatively affected.

Avoiding the tourist trap

Keiffer shared his understanding of the Maldives’ facility with Minivan News: “From what I’ve learned, your local facility will not be a run-of-the-mill tourist trap looking to “cash-in” on dolphin popularity by any means necessary. On the contrary, I believe it is striving to be one of a very few organizations setting the standards by which dolphin display facilities are expected to meet if they truly intend to convey a sense of respect and appreciation for the animals under their care.”

He added that the facility’s success would demand caretakers be able to support the dolphins’ physical and emotional needs.

A local source compared the proposal to other operations. “Dolphins are in appalling conditions in some places. Aquariums, for instance – that’s a real cage. People should be opposing those. But this is a totally different ballgame.”

If approved by the government, the facility is expected to be completed by the end of 2012. An official title has not yet been selected.