Building awareness of the threats to dolphins in the wild and what we can do to help . . .
In the wild, dolphins face many manmade threats to their well-being. There are direct threats from countries that still permit the hunting of dolphins for food or their capture for entertainment. But there are even greater threats from indirect sources like industrial fishing where dolphins are caught in large numbers as bycatch or in discarded gear.
We ask ourselves:
- Are there ways in which our personal choices can help to mitigate (or at least not contribute to) these threats?
- Are there organizations we can support that are working towards the regulatory changes that are required to protect dolphins?
➡Click here to jump to a (provisional) summary of the threats we have identified.
➡Click here to jump to a list of organizations that you can support.
Or read on to learn more about the moral basis for our responsibility to avoid causing suffering to dolphins and other intelligent animals.
Dolphins Are People Too
Thinking and feeling are remarkably similar in humans and dolphins, according to the preponderance of scientific evidence. With their large brains (larger than human, and second only to human when corrected for body mass), dolphins demonstrate self-awareness, the ability to think about their own thoughts, and a sense of identity. They are also capable of thinking abstractly, even planning and strategizing about the future (in one compelling example, dolphins were rewarded with fish for cleaning their tanks, so one dolphin stockpiled trash in a secret niche; then when she noticed that small pieces were rewarded the same as large, she began tearing little pieces to maximize her treats – she was training her trainers to reward her for less and less trash). Dolphins also have an appreciation for creativity – when requested to be ‘original’, they figure out what is required about as fast as humans presented with a similar test.
All of this intelligence complements their vivid social lives in complex groups where family bonds and friendships last a lifetime. Mothers and babies bond during a prolonged period of nursing (two or more years) and education. Like humans – but unlike most other animals -baby dolphins must learn their rich vocal language; and they do so much as human babies by first babbling and then eventually making more specific sounds. Dolphins are also among the very few species aside from humans where grand-mothering is so important that females have a substantial period of life after menopause. Sisters and friends babysit for each other. They demonstrate profound altruism, helping whales, their distant cousins, give birth. They mourn their dead.
“Dolphins are sophisticated, self-aware, highly intelligent beings with individual personalities, autonomy and an inner life. They are vulnerable to tremendous suffering and psychological trauma.” – Dr. Lori Marino
For these reasons, some scientists and ethicists have suggested that dolphins (and other large-brained cetaceans) deserve to be treated as non-human ‘persons’, with the same rights and protections as our fellow homo sapiens.
One crucial difference, however, separates us: through technology and unchecked population growth humans are changing the environment at a mind boggling rate, sometimes in ways that are harmful to other species. As intelligent and capable as dolphins are, they have few means to counter our adverse effects on their habitat. Consequently, it is entirely our responsibility to consider the welfare of dolphins (and all the other creatures with whom we share this planet) and minimize the threats our collective lifestyle imposes on them.
Threats to Wild Dolphins
Choices That Matter
The largest number of dolphins (and other small cetaceans) are hunted in Japan, but this technique is practiced also in the Faroe Islands (Denmark), the Solomon Islands, and Peru (there are reports from Turkey and Chile as well). Dolphins are chased into a bay by a fleet of motor boats, then the bay is closed with nets, and the dolphins are pressed together and their throats are cut so they bleed slowly to death. Most of these dolphins are killed for meat, though some are captured and sold to dolphinariums. The slaughter is so barbaric – dolphins screaming in pain for hours, swimming in the blood of their family, left to suffocate on the hard ground – it would never be allowed by the agricultural policy of the U.S. or Europe, even if these were livestock rather than wild dolphins.
Impact: Tens of thousands of dolphins are killed this way each year (more than 20,000 in Japan alone according to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society). Many more live with the trauma of being hunted and losing members of their pod or family. Imagine how a human community would be devastated after an attack of such brutality and scale.
Avert: International pressure and stigmatization has, as yet, proved relatively ineffective, but international initiatives may have impact. Several anti-whaling groups have petitioned the World Health Organization (WHO) to issue guidelines about the consumption of dolphin meat. Such international guidelines warning of the dangers of eating meat which is generally toxic due to environmental pollutants (see below) may curtail consumption. An international ban on dolphin meat (like the existing one on whale meat) may diminish the financial motivation. Raising awareness and educating people in the countries where dolphin hunting occurs remains important.
‣Take action: specific recommendations from SaveJapanDolphins.org.
‣Support efforts to have WHO issue international guidelines about the dangers of whale and dolphin meat.
‣Support efforts to ban the international trade of dolphin meat.
‣Support efforts to have the International Whaling Commission (IWC) recognize the need to protect dolphins and other small cetaceans.
‣Support educational efforts to inform people around the world about the toxicity of dolphin meat and the suffering imposed on dolphins by the hunt.
‣Avoid patronizing dolphinariums and aquariums that display wild-caught dolphins. Sales of dolphins to aquariums may finance the hunt.
Dolphins are captured around the world to supply dolphinariums and water parks for commercial entertainment. In the U.S. alone more than 9,000 people are employed in this industry, perhaps a $300 million budget. This exists because they can attract 115,000 visitors per animal, per year . . . that’s a lot of money. In most of the rest of the world, where this business is less regulated, the profits are higher (and the conditions worse). In the U.S., however, the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires a permit for the capture of dolphins, and none have been issued in over 20 years. It is still possible to buy dolphins that were captured abroad, but this does not appear to be widespread. (The National Aquarium has recently issued an official statement against the use of wild caught dolphins.)
In much of the rest of the world, exploitation of wild dolphins is still the norm. And countries that don’t have enough of their own dolphins, buy them from countries that do – for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Known purchasers of wild dolphins come from China, Turkey, Dubai – and this is in addition to all the countries that capture dolphins in their own waters, like Mexico.
Dolphins are also used in the military, primarily the U.S. and Russian navies. Despite propaganda, this is an awful fate for a dolphin – not only are they deployed in war zones, but a strap is tied around their mouths to ensure they come back to base; if the dolphins don’t return in time, their captors leave them to starve. Furthermore, in the war zone, the enemy’s response is to kill all dolphins, captive and wild. The U.S. Navy has an active breeding program, but they make no public commitment not to use wild dolphins.
Impact: There are no complete statistics, because few in the business want to be counted (in the U.S. registration of dolphins is mandatory – there are 433 captive bottlenose dolphins, of which perhaps a third were wild caught, but none recently). One estimate is that at least 4,500 dolphins are in captivity, of which 500 were captured by Japan in the last 10 years. The impact is much larger, however, because at least 50% die in the process of being captured, and another (uncounted) large percentage die from the ordeal of transportation. Once they arrive, their life expectancy is less than 5.5 years (compared to 30 or more years in the wild) suggesting severe stress. The mortality rate once in captivity has been measured at upwards of 25% per year.
“In the wild, dolphins are highly gregarious creatures and live in schools having a well-developed social structure – something which is entirely destroyed when they are brought into captivity. They will assist a wounded companion by holding it up to the surface of the water and nurse it until it becomes well again. Certain members of the school will even act as midwives to assist the delivery of a calf. Can you imagine the utter heartlessness of destroying such communities, the individual dolphins and their family members being killed and maimed during capture and transportation? This is something that the business never cares to consider. They’ve created out of the dolphin a Walt Disney character, a perpetually smiling, happy and funny dolphin called Flipper. But ‘Flipper’ is not a dolphin, any more than ‘Mickey Mouse’ is a mouse.” – Professor Giorgio Pilleri, Director of the Brain Anatomy Institute of the University of Berne, Switzerland
Avert: International trade in wild caught dolphins for entertainment is currently allowed, and it needs to be prohibited. In fact, to make sure there is no incentive to capture wild dolphins, all commercial trade in dolphins (whether born in captivity or not) must be ended. Many dolphinariums maintain dolphins in inadequate conditions. The plight of such dolphins should be publicized so that people who love dolphins do not inadvertently support the cruel capture and captivity of dolphins when they attend dolphin shows or ‘swim with dolphin’ programs. The UK allows NO captive dolphins. The US should follow their lead.
Links: http://www.iridescent-publishing.com/rtm/ch4p1.htm , http://www.bluevoice.org/news_dolphinshow.php , http://www.hsus.org/marine_mammals/what_are_the_issues/marine_mammals_in_captivity/the_case_against_marine_mammals_in_captivity.html , http://www.dolphinproject.org/dolphins-of-war.html
‣Avoid commercial dolphinarium, aquariums, or water parks that have dolphins or whales on display. If you must go, be sure all the dolphins were born in captivity.
‣Support an end to capturing dolphins for any purpose aside from rehabilitation. All research institutions have breeding programs.
‣Support efforts to ban both the international and domestic trade of dolphins for commercial entertainment (with no ‘educational’ loopholes).
‣Spread the word: share your knowledge about the cruelty of live capture and the suffering of dolphins in ‘showbiz’.
Humans have managed to pollute the oceans in the last 100 years to an alarming degree, and dolphins (and all other apex predators) suffer inordinately because the pollutants bioaccumulate. In particular, organic compounds, which accumulate in an animal’s fat cells rather than being flushed out, build up first in the smallest creatures (such as plankton) and become more and more magnified up the food chain. Dolphins, who require a tremendous amount of food energy to to survive as warm-blooded mammals in the ocean must eat large amounts of oily, calorie-dense but toxin-laden fish, leading to even greater accumulation of toxins such as mercury (as methyl mercury), PCBs, cadmium, and DDT.
Mercury – 70 tons or more each year of mercury contamination largely originates with coal powered electrical plants, chlorine plants (which is then used to make paper and soap), and the incineration of old cars that still have mercury in their light switches.
Impact: Mercury is a neurotoxin, and in humans it is known to cause mental retardation, deafness, and blindness in children exposed in the womb or during early development. Adults may also develop various neurological and cardiac symptoms. The high levels of mercury documented in the meat of dolphins and small whales indicates that they are not only toxic for humans to eat, but that they themselves are probably suffering the ill-effects of being poisoned. The newborn dolphin is at particular risk as mercury and other toxins are excreted by the mother through her milk. Dolphin infant mortality is already high – between 24 – 44% – due to the challenges of raising an air-breathing infant in the open ocean. Imagine the heartbreak of mother dolphins losing even more babies due to the increased pollution in our oceans.
Avert: Because the sources of mercury are so well defined, it is quite practical to regulate. A pollution control device on coal plants, an effective financial deterrent to cholorine manufacture for ‘unaccounted’ mercury, and the extra minute it takes to remove light switches from cars before they are incinerated is all that is required. Unfortunately, the EPA currently requires none of this.
PCBs – A widely used industrial chemical from the 1930’s through the 1970’s – they basically do not degrade at all, except at very high heat. Finally banned globally in the early 1970’s, they were still produced in limited quantities until 2000.
Impact: EPA has found clear evidence that PCBs have significant toxic effects in animals, including effects on the immune system, the reproductive system, the nervous system and the endocrine system. Studies have found an average of 80 ppm in adult and juvenile dolphins (1 to 10 ppm is considered dangerous for humans). The exception is among adult females who have already had one calf – apparently the PCBs which are stored in fat are fed to the first born calf in the mother’s milk. Consequently, infant mortality for first born dolphin calfs is above 50%. Imagine the trauma to the mothers and their pods, when their babies are slowly poisoned in the first year of life by their mother’s milk. Imagine the outcry if this were happening among humans.
Avert: Sadly, there is little that can be done about the pollution already in the ocean, though it is essential to be vigilant against any further contamination. There are still many polluted sites and products which must be disposed of properly. Many landfills that don’t have proper protection.
Cadmium – Originates from industrial sources: fossil fuel combustion, phosphate fertilizers, iron and steel production, cement production and related activities, nonferrous metals production, and municipal solid waste incineration.
Impact: There are lots of indications that dolphins and other apex predators (like tuna) have toxic levels of contamination in their kidneys and livers where it causes organ failure. 32% of adult dolphin kidneys from south australia showed abnormalities, mostly associated with serious kidney disease.
Avert: Considering that this chemical bioaccumulates, it is simply not well enough regulated, especially when it is part of the waste products of industrial processes.
DDT – Banned in the US in 1972, and globally banned in 2004 as part of the Stockholm convention outlawing many persistent organic pollutants, DDT is still widely used in India and North Korea, and around the world for killing mosquitos, which is not prohibited.
Impact: An endocrine disruptor, it causes diseases like diabetes in mammals, in birds it weakens egg shells and is catastrophic for many species. Necropsies of dead dolphins almost always show elevated levels of DDT along with the other toxins listed above.
Avert: Fortunately, DDT has a half life in biological systems of 5 to 10 years, so there is some hope that at least this contaminant can be reduced, if only we stop producing it in the first place.
‣Contact your congressional representatives about regulating mercury pollution – a few changes to coal powered electrical plants, chlorine manufacturing plants, and automobile disposal could practically stop mercury from entering the ocean, protecting humans and dolphins alike.
‣If you use nickel-cadmium batteries, be sure to return them to a store for proper disposal rather than throwing them in the trash.
‣India continues to use DDT as a pest control agent, but with increased awareness of its ecological and health costs it can be stopped.
There are primarily two ways that dolphins are killed in large numbers by the commercial fishing industry. The first is the use of purse seine techniques to catch yellow fin tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacfic, where they follow dolphins because they eat the same food. Fishermen surround the dolphins, netting them with the tuna, suffocating millions in the 1970’s and 80’s alone. This has been reduced in recent years through the prevalence of “Dolphin Safe” labels on canned tuna in the U.S. and Europe.
Dolphins are also frequently victims of fishing gear, especially gill nets which are practically invisible, but also line fishing, pair trawling, and bottom trawlers. Once caught, the dolphin drowns – often with family members desperately trying to free them. Consequently, consumers of fish like sea bass, mackerel, and albacore may be more likely to contribute to the deaths of dolphins as those who eat a can of tuna.
Impact: Before the advent of “Dolphin Safe” labels, more than seven million dolphins were killed by purse seine nets in the Eastern Pacific since 1950 at a rate of 80 – 100,000 each year. Now the rate has dropped to 2,000 – but that still means that three million are chased and traumatized in the process – largely attacked by the fleets of latin american countries like Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and El Salvador which have no “Dolphin Safe’ laws or standards.
As a result, dolphins are now dying at a much faster rate from general commercial fishing practices – gill nets in particular – than from being specifically targeted for yellow fin tuna.
“Almost 1,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises die every day in nets and fishing gear. Thats one every two minutes. Some species are being pushed to the brink of extinction.” – Dr. Susan Lieberman, director of WWF’s Global Species Program
Bycatch is a problem for the entire ocean, not just for dolphins. The techniques used to catch tuna that are considered ‘dolphin safe‘ kill other species like turtles, sharks, and rays in alarming numbers.
Avert: The U.S. Department of Commerce standardized the first “Dolphin Safe” label in 1990 – but it only ensures against deliberately targeting dolphins and only in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. The Earth Island Institute manages a stricter regime that requires that dolphins not be hurt in any way, even accidentally, wherever the tuna are caught. There are many other “Dolphin Safe” labels, most meaningless, and many promulgated by countries that want to undermine the success of the EII. To reduce further the toll of tuna fishing on dolphins, countries without dolphin safe regulation must be challenged, and consumers around the world who don’t understand what label to choose must be educated.
To decrease the impact of commercial fishing in general is harder. While large drift gill nets have been banned by the United Nations, they are still commonly used. There are ways to make fishing gear more visible to dolphins, some are not particularly expensive, but without regulation and enforcement, there is little interest among commercial fishermen. In the end, it is difficult to practice industrial scale harvesting of the sea without killing indiscriminately.
Links: http://www.greenpeace.org/raw/content/usa/press-center/reports4/canned-tuna-s-hidden-catch.pdf , http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/features/dolphins-die-in-trawler-nets/ , http://www.earthisland.org/dolphinSafeTuna/consumer/index.html , http://www.allaboutwildlife.com/dolphins-whales/the-disturbing-facts-about-dolphin-safe-tuna/4298
‣If you buy canned tuna, be sure it is labelled ‘Dolphin Safe’ by Earth Island Institute, other labels are less reliable.
Remember that even if it is truly dolphin safe, there may still have been considerable bycatch involved, including sharks, rays, and turtles.
‣Given the large number of dolphins killed by the indiscriminate practices of the commercial fishing industry, the only way to be sure that popular mid-ocean species like sea bass, mackerel, and sushi grade tuna were caught without harming dolphins is to buy from a small scale fisherman that you trust.
More than 70% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited or even significantly depleted, and 90% of the large fish in the ocean have been fished out since industrial fishing established itself in the 1950’s. Modern technology, enormous vessels, and an ever increasing appetite for fish (some of which is a result of campaigns for people to eat more ‘healthy’, the growing popularity of sushi, and increased prosperity in general) means that humans can now consume most fish faster than they can breed. Most of these techniques are indiscriminate – which directly kill thousands of dolphins every day – and waste 25% of what is caught.
Impact: There are signs that the depletion of global fishing stocks is beginning to have direct effects on dolphins. In New Zealand, for example, where 38,000 tons of squid are caught each year, small whales and dolphins are dying in alarming numbers, emaciated and with ulcers in their stomachs – they are starving to death.
Avert: Limiting the use of massive industrial fish harvesting and establishing a broad network of marine sanctuaries where fishing is completely banned and fish stocks can replenish are the two most effective ways to reduce over fishing. For consumers, organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium produce guides about what fish is sustainably caught. In the end, dolphins have limited choice about what to eat – they evolved in an ocean of plenty, and they never overfished it. Humans on the other hand have a great deal of choice; perhaps it is necessary to leave something for other animals to eat.
Links: http://www.savethefish.org/about_ocean_fisheries_overfishing.htm , http://www.3news.co.nz/Fishing-industry-starving-whales-of-food/tabid/1160/a , http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx , http://www.ted.com/talks/sylvia_earle_s_ted_prize_wish_to_protect_our_oceans.html
‣Consider eating seafood less often (or not at all). Buy less (or no) commercially caught seafood and consider patronizing small scale fishermen that you trust to deliver a sustainable, relatively waste-free, catch. Fish will be more expensive, but it will be a treat.
‣If buying fish at a store or restaurant, use a guide to choose fish from relatively stable populations like the one produced by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
You can print it out and keep it in your wallet or purse, or consult it online from your phone.
‣Support organizations that are working to end overfishing and establish marine sanctuaries around the world, like the World Wildlife Federation.
As the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico reminds us, no matter what the oil industry advertises, there is no way to drill offshore without the risk of catastrophic oil release. Dwindling supplies require exploring deeper and deeper where the risks increase exponentially. Once a spill begins in the open ocean, it is impossible to contain and affects all aspects of the ecosystem. We put at risk the homes and lives of all the wild ocean animals, including our extremely sentient cousins dolphins and whales, for oil that does not benefit them in any way. We certainly wouldn’t tolerate anyone doing that to us.
Impact: The mortality of dolphins and whales during oil spills is unknown because their remains sink before being counted (and those that oil companies do recover are often deliberately hidden from authorities). Overflights of the gulf oil spill counted hundreds of dolphins floundering in the oil, poisoned and disoriented. As mammals, dolphins face most of the same toxic effects from exposure to oil as humans – with the aggravating constraint that they have to surface through the spill in order to breath and they inhale right above the water where most of the fumes and toxic chemicals accumulate. These include: chemical burns and infections to skin, damaged lungs and pneumonia, damaged stomachs and intestines and inability to eat, internal organ failure, brain damage, and immune system collapse. Oil is extremely toxic.
Dolphins will avoid oil if they can, but if their primary fishing grounds are poisoned, they will struggle or starve – and they are likely to be pushed into environments where they are more exposed to predators.
Avert: Once the oil is spilled in an environment where dolphins live, not much can be done. The ethical thing to do is to stop offshore drilling, for humans to learn to live with limited supplies of oil and develop alternative technologies to provide our energy requirements.
‣Support organizations like Oceana that are working against renewed offshore oil exploration and drilling.
‣Contact your congressional representatives to provide your point of view about the value and ethics of continued offshore oil drilling.
‣Support efforts to develop sustainable energy sources. Ask your congressional representative to support programs that develop and implement cleaner energy solutions.
‣There are so many reasons to reduce our personal energy footprints – here is one more.
Without complete statistics, it is impossible to know how many dolphins are killed or injured by collisions with boats. Nevertheless, based on the number of dolphins identified with propeller scars, this is a non-negligible source of harm. The problem seems to be most prevalent in ever more crowded coastal waters where dolphins frequently rest.
Avert: If boat speeds are controlled and dolphin habitat is monitored and respected, many of these injuries can be avoided. Education of boat owners and operators is paramount.
‣As a boat owner or operator, recognize that dolphins, though agile, are still limited in their ability to avoid a speeding boat – and in some cases they may not have enough experience to realize the danger of propellers. Slowing down is always a good idea.
Hearing is the most important sense perception for dolphins; they need it for finding each other given limited visibility underwater, communicating with each other, and the echolocation they use to catch food and understand the world around them. Underwater noise can impede their ability to hear and at worst damage their hearing temporarily or even permanently. The most prevalent source of noise is boat traffic – scientists have recorded how whales have had to change the pitch of their songs to be heard over the aggregate noise of boat traffic, but this means it takes more energy and their modified songs travel less far. The most damaging sources of noise are used by the oil industry (seismic air guns) and the navy (powerful sonar) – these tools, which are thousands of times louder than a jet engine (and propagate for huge distance in water without losing their power), can permanently deafen animals in a wide area.
Impact: Stranding of whales and dolphins is common when the U.S. Navy tests its powerful sonar – they beach themselves to try and get away. The navy itself estimates that marine mammals will be harmed 10 million times during the next 5 years given their plans for increased sonar testing. A dolphin that cannot hear at all is in grave danger – it cannot feed itself and it struggles to remain with its pod. When dolphin resting areas are overwhelmed with boat noise, they have to move more frequently, swim closer together, spend less time actually resting.
Avert: The NRDC has led a campaign against the use of low-frequency and mid-frequency sonar by the U.S. Navy, but it has only been partially successful. Also, federal and local governments often exempt the oil industry from the kind of environmental assessments that would prevent their use of seismic guns near cetacean habitat – it is time to hold the industry consistently accountable for the risks it poses and to end offshore oil exploration in general. The problem of noisy boats is largely unappreciated – even though small, relatively inexpensive, technical fixes could make the underwater world much quieter.
Links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolphin#cite_note-56 , http://www.ted.com/talks/peter_tyack_the_intriguing_sound_of_marine_mammals.html , http://www.nrdc.org/wildlife/marine/sonar.asp , http://www.cbc.ca/canada/british-columbia/story/2010/09/03/bc-williams-whales-underwater-noise.html
‣As a boat operator, recognize that dolphins need quiet to rest, and that engine noise interferes with their ability to communicate with each other. Always give them as much space as possible (if they aren’t actively playing with your boat)
‣As a boat owner, consider investing in a noise reduction kit for the benefit of all cetaceans.
‣Support the NRDC’s campaign to end or vastly limit the use of powerful naval sonar.
‣Demand that federal and state authorities consistently monitor the oil industry for the environmental threats it poses, including the damage of seismic guns to local dolphins and whales.
Humans enjoy seeing wild dolphins, and the feeling appears to be reciprocated as dolphins purposefully approach boats and even swim playfully with humans who enter their world. Nevertheless there are a lot more humans than dolphins, and the rapidly growing industry to provide a “dolphin experience” to eager tourists is not always respectful of what is in the best interest of their objects of admiration. While dolphins may enjoy an occasional, even a regular, visit from their strange faced, clumsy primate cousins – imagine how you would feel if every time you tried to go to sleep or have a quiet moment with your family, a bunch of noisy neighbors came crashing into your home without knocking. If this happened every day, you might start to lose your mind – no matter how much you liked them before.
Impact: Studies have shown that dolphins in highly touristed areas change their behavior significantly – eating, resting, and mating less while traveling more in order to get away from the nuisance. When one sees multiple boats revving their engines to chase pods of dolphins up and down their familiar habitat for the pleasure of paying customers, it does not require a scientific study to see what a problem this is.
Avert: Many small dolphin tourist boats are operated by informed, respectful, well-meaning owners. They put the health of the dolphins above the satisfaction of their human customers – and they make a point of educating the public that part of ‘loving dolphins’ is being careful not to overwhelm them and to let the dolphins set the terms of the encounter, after all it is in their home. Sadly, there are also boat operators who are more interested in the success of their businesses. Increased regulation would be helpful, but it is most important to encourage a discerning public.
In the U.S., the Marine Mammal Protection Act makes it illegal to feed, pursue, or harass wild dolphins. NOAA provides some guidelines for observing dolphins in the wild and urges the public not to swim with Hawaiian spinner dolphins because of the likelihood of interfering with their critical resting time.
‣In the U.S., the Marine Mammal Protection Act wisely prohibits harassment of wild dolphins. Be sure your interactions are not interfering with dolphin rest or foraging time.
‣Choose your boat and guide carefully. Your experience will be better knowing that you weren’t harassing the dolphins and that your operator cared more for their well-being than your entertainment.
‣If you are on a boat that behaves badly, be sure to publicize it, and report it to authorities where appropriate.
‣Even a conscientious tour operator cannot keep track of every tourist and dolphin. Be a responsible tourist by observing dolphins first before charging ahead to interact with them; let them approach you. Learn the signs of dolphin agitation and leave the water if you notice them directed towards you.
For centuries, the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere had not surpassed 300 parts per million. Since 1950, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has surpassed 300 parts per million and continues to climb beyond 400 parts per million. Scientists agree that this drastic increase is likely due to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap heat from the sun, causing the earth’s atmosphere to warm. This doesn’t simply warm the planet; excessive carbon dioxide has consequences for our oceans and global climate patterns.
Rising sea levels as well as warmer and more acidic water are the main changes to the ocean that have been observed. The ocean absorbs a large portion of this extra heat and carbon dioxide. Warmer water expands, resulting in rising sea level. The other cause of rising sea levels is the melting of glaciers and ice sheets due to warmer global temperatures.
The extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in the ocean and turns into carbonic acid, which lowers the pH of the ocean (makes it more acidic). The acidity of ocean surface waters has increased by 30 percent since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, and the upper layer of the oceans continues to absorb carbon dioxide by 200 billion tons each year.
Impact: It is difficult to get a grasp of exactly how climate change will affect dolphins. It will probably affect different dolphin species in different ways. All dolphins live within a specific coastal range, some species having wider ranges than others. The size of these ranges are partially dependent on the temperature at which different dolphin species have adapted to be able to live and hunt. Habitat loss due to changing water temperatures may be one of the primary challenges that climate change will pose for dolphins. Similarly, prey loss and migration is another large concern. Most fish and cephalopod species which are food for dolphins are directly affected by temperature. Embryonic development, migration, growth and survival in these animals are all affected by temperature. Distribution of marine mammal species are likely to change in response to their prey species, and not all dolphin species may be able to adapt.
Melting glaciers can also change the salinity of the ocean in different areas. Variation in ocean salinity may affect dolphin health. Bottlenose dolphins living in low salinity areas have exhibited more severe skin lesions.
As our human activities warm the planet, we could be forcing dolphins to leave their home ranges, starving them of food, and exposing them to new threats. This is profoundly unfair and unethical.
Avert: Before the change of leadership in 2017, the EPA was working to reduce United States greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020. The Office of Research and Development continues to research environmental impacts of climate change. The EPA had also developed voluntary energy and climate programs in partnership with the private sector, which reduced over 345 million metric tons of greenhouse gases in 2010. Industry still causes about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, transportation results in 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, and electricity use results in 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. It is critical to ensure that the government continues its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
‣Contact your representatives to let them know that reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be a national priority and that the EPA should continue to receive federal funding.
‣Switch your electricity source to a utility providing solar or wind power (nuclear energy has too many risks, many of them foisted on dolphins and whales, to be considered ‘clean’).
‣Buy products and services from companies that are powered by ‘clean’ energy from solar or wind power. The internet itself consumes huge amounts of electricity, so look to use services powered ‘cleanly’.
‣Recycling reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
‣Reduce your everyday energy usage. Consider carpooling, biking, or walking whenever possible and switch your standard light bulbs with energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. Turn off electronics and unplug chargers when not in use.
Organizations Making a Difference for Dolphin Well-being
Organizations that focus on dolphins and whales:
- Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society – Works hard with very modest resources primarily to stop commercial whaling and to setup marine protected areas. One of the few organizations working for the benefit of captive dolphins.
- Blue Voice – A small but longtime champion for dolphins in the wild. Focuses on popularizing knowledge about dolphins and coordinating important areas of research.
- Act for Dolphins – A group of marine scientists and zoo and aquarium professionals working to stop the dolphin drive hunts in Japan.
- Ocean Alliance – Focused on the well being of whales and research into the effects of ocean pollution.
- Cetacean Alliance – Mediterranean umbrella group of local ngo’s working, largely through research, to learn what is necessary to limit human impact on cetaceans.
- Dolphin Safe Program of Earth Island Institute – Originated and manages the most effective dolphin safe label for consumers of canned tuna. Hugely successful at reducing the number of dolphins killed in tuna fishing.
Organizations that focus on oceans:
- Oceana – Focuses on policy issues including energy, pollution, fishing, and animal protection (though not specifically whales or dolphins) – and supports hard science to backup policy decisions.
- Sea Shepherd Conservation Society – Activists who engage in direct intervention, sometimes controversial, but always unflinchingly trying to save the lives of dolphins and whales. It also focuses on other marine mammals, sharks, and overfishing.
- Ocean Conservancy – Venerable organization focused on the health of the oceans in general and creating marine protected areas.
Large organizations that include issues important to dolphins:
- World Animal Protection – Provides very focused work against dolphin captivity. They make an excellent argument against the use of dolphins for any public entertainment or ‘therapeutic’ purposes.
- World Wildlife Federation – Works for better fishing policies, the establishment of marine protected areas, and specific programs to stop whaling and address the problems of bycatch.
- Natural Resources Defense Council – Of note primarily for a specific program to challenge the use of dangerous navy sonar which kills and deafens dolphins and whales.
- Greenpeace – Fights loudly against whaling and ocean pollution.
- Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) – An independent campaigning organisation committed to bringing about change that protects the natural world from environmental crime and abuse
For a general survey of organizations working to preserve and protect the oceans, visit this excellent resource: http://marinebio.org/Oceans/Conservation/organizations.asp
Other overviews of the threats faced by dolphins include: http://www.cms.int/reports/small_cetaceans/data/d_delphis/d_delphis.htm