Dead dolphin found with puncture wound to head

A dolphin with a puncture wound to the head was found dead and stranded on Hoadedhdhoo Island in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll yesterday morning (July 17).

In the early morning hours of Tuesday a Hoadedhdhoo resident discovered the dead dolphin on the west side of the island – which faces away from the interior of the atoll towards the open sea.

The dolphin showed no signs of life, but had sustained a visible puncture wound which was bleeding onto the hard, flat coral that surrounds the island like a buffer.

“I think fishing boat people injured it because its head was bleeding. The dolphin looked like its head had a puncture from a fishing hook,” a Hoadedhdhoo government official told Minivan News today (July 17) on condition of anonymity.

This incident could be a potential issue for the Maldives’ fishing industry, which is known for its environmentally sustainable pole and line method, where no nets are allowed, preventing bycatch which makes it ‘dolphin safe’.

The source said he believed the dolphin must have died recently because there was no foul odor coming from the body at the time it was discovered.

A white object in the dolphin’s mouth was a piece of coral probably put there by small children that had been playing near the body, the source explained.

The source noted that “not a lot” of fishing boats are seen off the coast of Hoadedhdhoo. However, large pods of dolphins have been observed in the channel slightly north of Hoadedhdhoo.

About five or six years ago a small dolphin was found dead on the same side of the island, however it did not appear to have sustained any injuries, another Hoadedhdhoo resident told Minivan News on condition of anonymity.

Dolphins essential for Maldives’ ecosystem

Following the reported incident, Minivan News contacted the Maldives Marine Research Centre (MRC) to determine the species and age of the dead dolphin.

“From the characteristics of its body shape and erect dorsal fin, it appears to be a common spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris). They can be easily identified by a long slender beak with a black tip and black lips, while their bodies are mainly grey with three toned coloration,” MRC Assistant Research Officer Mariam Shidha told Minivan News today.

While it was difficult to determine the exact size of the deceased dolphin based on the photographs, it is “most likely to be an adult”, since adults range between 1.8 – 2.1 meters in size, while they mature at the size of 1.5 – 1.7 meters, explained Shidha.

“Dolphins are important to our ecosystem because they are apex (top level) predators which control the populations of fishes and squids to keep it all balanced,” Shidha emphasised.

She explained that stranding of cetacean species – a such as whales, dolphins, and porpoises – “do not happen that often” in Maldivian waters; at most two to three per year are reported.

“[Moreover,] in the Maldives its a very rare thing for a dolphin to be injured by a fishermen since they are not a bycatch of pole and line fisheries,” she said. “However, in the Pacific Ocean, fishermen sometimes purposefully catch dolphins as they use other [unsustainable] fishing methods in order to get to the yellowfin tunas that swim underneath dolphins.”

“The MRC has had no reports of such deliberate acts of abuse or harm to dolphins [in the Maldives],” said Shidha. However, any incidents of people harming dolphins or strandings should be reported to the MRC.

All dolphins and whales are protected under the Maldivian Law and almost all the species of dolphins found in Maldivian waters are listed in the IUCN’s red list of threatened species, noted Shidha.

The MRC is working to raise awareness about why dolphins are essential for the environment in the Maldives.

“We are educating the public on the importance of protecting these charismatic fauna which are so important for the functioning of the ecosystem,” emphasised Shidha. “Also we have held a Cetacean Symposium and outreach programs for school children.”

Fisheries Ministry

“When we find a [stranded] dolphin it’s important to know how it happened. However, I don’t know how we can investigate [in this case],” Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Ahmed Shafeeu told Minivan News today.

“The type of pole and line fishing we have [in the Maldives] is done in a way that doesn’t harm dolphins,” said Shafeeu. “We have not had reports of dolphins being caught, it’s very unlikely.”

“Although an accident or something can happen, in that case the dolphin should be released immediately,” he emphasised. “Catching dolphins in any way [intentional or unintentional] is not allowed by law.”

“Sometimes dolphins are found washed up on the shore [of an island]. In those cases the incident should be reported to the local island council,” explained Shafeeu. “[But] there is no specific regulation that requires island councils to report to national offices if an animal is found.”

“However, if there are concerns of malpractice or someone is known to be deliberately hurting an animal, then it should be reported [to the relevant authorities beyond the island level],” he added.

‘Dolphin safe’

Environmentally-friendly, sustainable pole and line fishing allows Maldives’ tuna to be certified as ‘dolphin safe’, enabling it to be sold as a “premium” product for the European and US markets.

The ‘dolphin safe’ certification is provided by the Earth Island Institute (EII), an international non-governmental organisation (NGO).

Earlier this year EII Associate Director Mark Berman explained to Minivan News that EII’s ‘dolphin safe’ policy requires that “no tuna company will deal in sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, whales, or their products. All efforts to minimise bycatch of these species is mandatory”.

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 at the time. “Major tuna importing nations will not buy tuna from governments that harm dolphins.”

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

Sea turtle killing threatening Maldives’ dolphin-safe tuna certification

The Maldives is at risk of losing its dolphin safe tuna certification, while fishing vessels will be banned from delivering tuna for export if they participate in sea turtle killing.

A recent report by Minivan News found that the practice of slaughtering sea turtles is widespread throughout the Maldives due to lack of enforcement and poor awareness, and prevailing attitudes that the practice is acceptable.

A marine biologist and former civil servant with knowledge of the matter told Minivan News that the killing of endangered sea turtles was a nationwide problem.

“I know for a fact there are still specific island communities that harvest and consume green turtle meat. For example, in Laamu Atoll there are good nesting sites. Sea turtle meat is sold for a high price because it is marketed as a substitute for beef,” he said.

The marine biologist stated that the vessel in a photo published by Minivan News showing a large number of slaughtered sea turtles was “very obviously a diving dhoni”.

This, he said, raised the possibility that Maldivians were supplying resorts and/or safari boats with sea turtle meat for the consumption of guests.

The large number of slaughtered turtles on the boat also indicated that they were taken from a special nesting beach with a high nesting intensity.

“If it is nesting season there are many female turtles in the water and on the beach, and they can be easily caught,” the marine biologist stated.

Meanwhile, a safari boat operator who contacted Minivan News forwarded a photo showing half a dozen dead sea turtles, including one being ridden by a small Maldivian child. The source informed Minivan News that the photo was taken during a picnic last year on Thulhaadhoo in Baa Atoll, inside the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

Dolphin safe certification threatened

The international non-governmental organisation (NGO) that provides the Maldives with its ‘dolphin safe’ tuna certification, the Earth Island Institute (EII), has expressed alarm over the reports of mass turtle slaughter in the Maldives.

“No dhoni (boat) that fishes tuna for export can be allowed to be involved in sea turtle kills. Any tuna dhoni that also kills sea turtles will automatically be banned from delivering tuna to any Maldives processor for tuna export,” Earth Island Institute Associate Director Mark Berman told Minivan News.

He explained the EII’s dolphin safe policy requires that “no tuna company will deal in sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, whales, or their products. All efforts to minimise bycatch of these species is mandatory”.

“Each company in the Maldives, including those owned by the government, are signatories to the policy, therefore the government must do its best to stop this slaughter,” Berman stated.

Maldivian tuna is a “premium” product for the European and US markets because it is pole and line caught (no nets are allowed), there is no bycatch, and because it is dolphin safe and sustainable.

Berman emphasised that the EII will work with the Maldivian government and tuna industry to help stop the practice of turtle killing.

“I am very concerned and surprised this sea turtle [slaughter] problem has grown.

“The EII is not at all blaming the tuna industry or the government for this issue. We want to help solve it,” said Berman. “Earth Island has been a partner of the Maldivian tuna industry, friend of the government, and has campaigned for sustainable dolphin safe tuna exports for over 20 years.”

“However, other NGOs will see this issue and then attach it to any products exported [from the Maldives]. Then consumers in the US or Europe may tie the two together,” he warned.

Berman said the Fisheries Ministry need to alert fishing boat owners, while the EII would inform tuna companies.

“The government should do everything possible to educate the fishing folks that this is a serious problem both for fisheries and tourism. Also, the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) could weigh in on the situation,” said Berman.

However the marine biologist told Minivan News that EII was not genuinely concerned with dolphin-friendly advocacy, and instead “have their own political agenda which is very business related and selfish”.

“Some countries are much worse than the Maldives but EII still gives them dolphin-safe certification,” he said.

EII has been working with the Maldivian government as well as fishing and processing companies since 1992. The Maldives was the second nation to sign onto EII’s dolphin safe policy.

“No direct linkages with turtle capture and the fishing industry”: Fisheries Ministry

Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Ahmed Shafeeu told Minivan News the Ministry had launched an investigation based on the recent report of mass sea turtle slaughter.

“It is very unlikely it is a tuna fishing boat. There are no direct linkages with turtle capture and the fishing industry,” Shafeeu stated. “Based on the photo it appears to be a normal ferry boat, which looks like it may once upon a time have been used as a dive or safari boat.”

“Just because a group of people have done something [illegal], the entire fishing industry can’t be blamed for breaking the law and committing a crime,” he added.

Shafeeu said the Fisheries Ministry is working the the Maldives’ Marine Research Center (MRC) to stop sea turtle slaughter.

“The MRC Director General Dr Shiham Adam is engaging directly with island councils to investigate.

“Also, Shiham and I are discussing how to fill the legal gaps, such as banning collection of sea turtle eggs. The current regulations are vague and do not apply nationwide – collecting eggs is prohibited only on specific islands,” said Shafeeu.

The Fisheries Ministry is also coordinating with the Environment Ministry to “determine how to start an [awareness] campaign”.

Monitoring fishing vessels directly was very difficult, but fishing boats did require registration and licensing in order to sell tuna.

Given that monitoring is such a challenge, the government needs Maldivian citizens to report any unlawful actions, Shafeeu said.

“We expect that when sea turtle killing occurs, someone will report it to us or directly to the police so it can be investigated,” he said.

“Even with the councils, they just keep a blind eye, so these things continue. People need to know we are serious and won’t just let go of this issue, it is our responsibility to take action,” he declared.

The marine biologist meanwhile explained that environmental law in the Maldives provides an umbrella framework, but only on paper.

“There has been a total ban on killing and catching sea turtles since 2006. However, as environmental crime is not appreciated in the Maldives, enforcement needs to be strengthened,” he emphasised.


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.