South Pacific Nation Frees Dolphins Destined for Captivity

Activists applaud the Solomon Islands for releasing the wild-caught dolphins, which they say would have been sold to marine parks in China and elsewhere.
(Photo: Lisa Wiltse/Corbis via Getty Images)
Nov 9, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

More than 30 wild-caught dolphins in the Solomon Islands have been returned to the sea and will not be performing tricks for tourists at theme parks in China and other countries.

Law enforcement officers from the South Pacific nation’s police force and fisheries ministry last week liberated the bottlenose dolphins from floating cages where they had been hidden at a research center on Mbungana Island, according to the ministry. The authorities said an undisclosed number of dolphins were also released from confinement on Kolombangara Island during a similar raid.

For years, the South Pacific nation was a leading exporter of wild-caught dolphins sold to aquariums and marine parks in countries around the world. Bowing to international pressure, the Solomon Islands passed the Fisheries Management Act of 2015, which included a ban on the export of dolphins and the confinement of the animals for the purposes of sale. Violators face a fine of $64,000 or two years in prison or both.

According to local news reports and conservation groups that work in the islands, the 27 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins released in Mbungana had been captured and held by the Solmarine Mammal Breeding Center, which claimed it would be using the animals for scientific research.

Solmarine’s owner, veterinarian Baddeley Anita, said the company had received licenses to operate the facility from the government’s Environment Division and from the Central Province. But the fisheries ministry overruled those licenses.

On Monday, Anita said he would take legal action against the ministry for the raid on his facility, which took place on Oct. 31.

“Solmarine has not received any complaint from the Fisheries Department from day one of its operations,” the company said in a statement published by the Solomon Star News. “But last Saturday’s event was a disaster. Our six years of work was destroyed in 15 minutes.”

The fisheries ministry did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Anti-captivity activists applauded the two raids, insisting that the captured animals were destined for the international captive-display industry, particularly in China, where the aquarium industry is burgeoning, as well as Russia, South Korea, Singapore, Dubai, and other locations.

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China recently made headlines by attempting to import hundreds of marine mammals, including dolphins and killer whales, from the waters of Namibia.

“This is a gut punch to the Chinese and other captive facilities that were looking for wild dolphins,” said Dave Phillips, director of the International Marine Mammal Project at the Earth Island Institute, which has been working in the Solomon Islands for 15 years.

“This is a heartening and commendable action by the Solomons to stick by the capture and export ban,” he added. “I think it took a lot of courage and boldness for them to do it. They are going against the suitcases full of dollars that could have possibly changed hands with the government to get the dolphins out of there.”

Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project has also spent years in the country fighting against the capture of live dolphins for export, as well as the killing of animals for their meat and teeth. “We can’t say how happy we are with the Solomon Islands police force and fisheries ministry that they upheld the law and did something about this,” said Lincoln O’Barry, media manager for the Dolphin Project.

“We are working with the last remaining village, Fanalei, which is still doing dolphin slaughters on a regular basis,” O’Barry said. He noted that villagers once killed about 850 animals annually, making that hunt even larger than the annual dolphin drive at the cove in Taiji, Japan.

“Last year about 90 were killed, and this year, only 30,” he said.

Dolphins are a significant part of Solomon Islands culture, O’Barry said. Dolphin teeth are part of the traditional dowry given to the family of a bride.

O’Barry said his group is relying on grassroots community development efforts to transition island life away from hunting dolphins. The Dolphin Project has also deployed virtual reality technology to educate Solomon villagers about the intelligence of dolphins.

Both O’Barry and Phillips said that despite the recent government action, their organizations would remain vigilant against attempts to capture wild animals for the international dolphin trade.

“We’re lucky right now, but the government does change over every few years,” O’Barry said.

“Somewhere between 27 and 40 dolphins could very well have been in preparation for loading onto jets and being sold off to Chinese theme parks,” Phillips said. “Fortunately, this time that was stopped, and the dolphins were returned. But that doesn’t happen very often.

“I don’t feel like we can breathe a sigh of relief that this has really stopped China from finding live dolphins,” he added, “because money talks, and they’ve got a lot of it.”