Taking the Genetic Fingerprint of Captive Dolphins to Save Wild Ones

Regulators are considering creating a DNA database of bottlenose dolphins in captivity to deter trade in their endangered Black Sea cousins.
Dolphins jump in their pool at a dolphinarium on the Black Sea coast. (Photo: Bogdan Cristel/Reuters)
Oct 3, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

International law has banned the capture and live trade of an endangered population of bottlenose dolphins from the Black Sea since 2002, but that hasn’t stopped poachers from trafficking the animals. Now conservationists are proposing a novel way to fight the problem: DNA.

Next week at a conference of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species that’s under way in Johannesburg, the Ukrainian delegation will introduce a proposal to create a worldwide database of DNA samples from all captive bottlenose dolphins. The idea: Prevent illegal traders from selling illegally caught Black Sea dolphins to marine parks and zoos.

The proposal calls for “appropriate measures to prevent the substitution of Black Sea bottlenose dolphins that die in captivity by others taken from the wild.”

CITES in 2002 established a zero quota for dolphins taken from the Black Sea and traded for commercial purposes.

Nevertheless, according to CITES data, 1,087 bottlenose dolphins were exported around the world between 2000 and 2015, and 95 of them, or nearly one in 10, came from the Black Sea.

“At this level it is quite difficult to verify the claims whether the animals are of captive origin or whether they have been replaced by wild-caught animals,” the proposal says. “Marking and registering the animals would be useful so that for future cases there is more transparency to verify whether the animals are substituted or not.”

The proposal establishes a global database of captive-dolphin DNA, searchable on the internet, allowing buyers to verify whether the animals were bred in captivity or taken from the wild. Other DNA testing could determine if dolphins came from the protected Black Sea population.

Leading marine conservationists support the proposal.

“Capture and trade levels in this population were high and the [International Union on Conservation of Nature] Red List has it listed as endangered,” Cathy Williamson, captivity program manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said in an email.

“We are now supporting this call by Ukraine...to identify all Black Sea bottlenose dolphins in trade so wild-caught individuals cannot be passed off as captive-bred,” Williamson said. Black Sea dolphins had been sold to a number of countries, including Russia, Canada, Greece, Iran, and Israel, she said.

“I like the idea of a DNA registry,” said Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “I think the industry can’t be trusted. I think they need oversight, and this way of recording identity is the most difficult to cheat.”

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Microchipping is another option, although “someone could remove the chip and insert it into another animal,” Rose said. “Or you could identify them by natural markings, for some animals, but that can be very subtle, and without really good photos, it doesn’t work any better.”

Volodymyr Domashlinets, a Ukrainian delegate to CITES, said the proposal will be discussed Monday and Tuesday in Johannesburg. “It doesn’t mean that the voting will actually take place,” he said. “It depends on the results of the discussion.”

The CITES Secretariat seemed to reject the proposal.

“The bottle-nosed dolphin [is] rated of ‘Least concern’ in the IUCN Red List with a minimum world-wide population estimate of 600,000 specimens,” the Secretariat stated in an official comment on the proposal. “The number of live specimens reported in international trade has been 100-200 per year in recent years. In the circumstances, it is unclear why such a marking and registration system is required for this species where levels of trade are very low.”

The project “does not appear to be a conservation priority,” it said, adding that a database would cost between $30,000 and $50,000 to set up, with annual maintenance costs after that. “As drafted, the Secretariat does not see any justification for the Conference of the Parties to adopt the draft resolution.”

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service said in a notice published on Sept. 19 in the Federal Register that the “tentative” U.S. position is to oppose the move.

“While the stated purpose of the document is to address concerns about Black Sea bottlenose dolphins, the draft resolution presented in the document would apply to all bottlenose dolphins worldwide,” the agency stated.

“We are grateful to Ukraine for raising the issue of potential illegal trade in live specimens of Black Sea bottlenose dolphins due to improper permitting. Fraudulent permits and illegal trade can undermine the effectiveness of CITES listings and this is a matter that the United States takes very seriously,” a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said in an email. “However, we believe that questions regarding improper permitting and illegal trade...are better examined more directly and through existing CITES tools, rather than through creation of genetic identification databases.”

The agency noted that some countries already track the DNA of captive dolphins.

Domashlinets said the existing DNA data were a plus. “The provision of this information to a central repository would not be an unnecessary burden,” he said.