A heated year for the dolphin issue

The issue of captive dolphin entertainment facilities setting up in the Cayman Islands got very heated during the course of this year.

In February 2006 the Caymanian Compass broke the story that planning permission had been granted for the construction of two separate dolphin entertainment facilities to be located in West Bay.

One is Dolphin Discovery, which is proposed to be operated by a private investor on property leased from the Cayman Turtle Farm. This franchise has headquarters in Mexico.

Dolphin Cove Cayman is associated with Dolphin Cove Jamaica and is to be located by Morgan’s Harbour in West Bay.

However, the dolphin facilities would still have other criteria to fulfil in order to be permitted to open for business. The parks were granted import permits for dolphins in accordance with meeting Department of Agriculture conditions. Other requirements such as gaining a discharge permit from the Water Authority have to be met. The latter was issued to Dolphin Cove in 2005.

In March 2006 the Cayman Islands Tourism Association took a position against the establishment of captive dolphin entertainment parks following a member survey.

A CITA watersports sector opinion paper, which had been published in January 2006, included reasons for why it was against such facilities including dolphin attractions being closed down on a regular basis in other nations, dolphin excrement being a threat to the environment and the industry creating negative PR for Cayman.

A group headed up by Billy Adam, called ‘Keep Dolphins Free in the Cayman Islands’ was already well established in Cayman and had made its voice known as it warned of the potential threats to tourism and the environment the industry could bring, along with voicing the ethical issues of keeping large intelligent and predatory mammals captive. The Marine Conservation Board and the Cayman Humane Society have also expressed their opposition to such facilities.

In March of 2006 Minister of Tourism Charles Clifford announced at a Cabinet press briefing that any legislation that the PPM Government might introduce with respect to dolphinariums in Cayman could not, as a general principle of law, have a retroactive effect.

This meant that there was to be no legal impediment to prevent the already proposed dolphin facilities from opening in West Bay.

Because of the impending reality of captive dolphin facilities being established in Cayman, in March the Caymanian Compass independently visited Dolphin Cove in Jamaica and took a look at the tourist operation and interviewed the operators of the facility.

Activists who wish to see dolphins remain free did not appreciate some of the observations of the reporter or the comments of the operators and there followed a stream of letters to the editor.

An editorial in an April edition of the Caymanian Compass set the record straight, stating that the article had reported what the reporter had been told and had observed while there. It was a feature and had never meant to be an investigative piece. Those campaigning for dolphins to remain free had gained much page one press on their side of the issue, the editor noted.

In July, three prominent figures in the dive industry spoke out publicly to the media against the introduction of captive dolphin facilities.

President of the Women Divers Hall of Fame and marine environmentalist Martha Watkins-Gilkes warned that Cayman could potentially be boycotted by the dive community if captive dolphin facilities were set up here. Algae blooms from dolphin waste at such facilities can kill reefs and most divers are environmentally aware, she said.

Also speaking out against the setting up of such facilities were pioneer underwater film producer and photographer Stan Waterman and award winning underwater photographer Cathy Church.

In August 2006 in an interview with the Caymanian Compass, Minister Clifford said he believed the environment would not be negatively impacted by the proposed facilities, nor did he believe the dive industry would be negatively affected. The systems used and permits obtained by the companies setting up would ensure the environment is not harmed, he said.

In response to the Minister’s remarks, the CITA issued a statement in September saying that it was significantly concerned about the opening of such facilities.

It said that research and facts from other Caribbean nations have shown that environmental damage is caused by such facilities and cited Dolphin Discovery in Antigua having to be closed because of environmental problems.

CITA also said there were no proper regulations in place for the establishment of such facilities.

At the Cayman Islands’ annual Tourism Conference in September Mr. Kent Eldemire, who is associated with Dolphin Cove, said he was concerned about the CITA’s statement and its stance.

He said Dolphin Cove, a US$10 million development would employ 50 people. He continued, saying all permission necessary had taken three years to get, $150,000 worth of reports that were commissioned on the instructions of the Department of Environment, the Water Authority, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health.

In late October the Cayman Islands Government issued a moratorium on the establishment of any new dolphinariums effective immediately.

However, it was noted that the two facilities already in advanced stages of establishing themselves here would be allowed to do so. Minister Clifford said the Cabinet had recently approved the 2006 Revised Dolphin Policy after a one-year review consultation with local authorities.

The two dolphinariums grandfathered into the new policy – Dolphin Cove and Dolphin Discovery – would still be required to continuously satisfy the regulatory requirements such as water discharge, land use, public health, animal welfare and environmental impacts.

The dolphin policy mandates new legislation to consolidate the various separate laws that regulate dolphinariums.

But Mr. Adam of KDFCI said it was disappointing that the new policy contained many gaps, along with what he called ’empty and unproven’ statements.

Mr. Clifford said a White Paper outlining the provisions of the policy would be tabled shortly in the Legislative Assembly.

During the October/November Florida Caribbean Cruise Association’s conference, which took place in Grand Cayman, Keep Dolphins Free in the Cayman Islands held a press conference.

Their message was that stringent regulations for captive dolphin facilities reflecting those of jurisdictions like the UK are the only way to ensure proposed dolphin facilities in Cayman will be able to meet acceptable standards.