Spanish Bay Dolphin Park…Flip or Flop?

The Island Newspaper, Ambergris Caye, Belize            Vol. 14, No. 42            December 2, 2004

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The Spanish Bay Project is a proposal to further develop Spanish Lookout Caye to include recreational tourism, education and research components. The recreational tourism aspect of the operation includes a dolphin encounter programme and will build on the current activities, which are based on scuba diving, snorkeling and kayaking. It is reported that the Hugh Parkey Foundation (HPF) will import approximately ten dolphins from the Anthony's Caye Resort located in Honduras. The dolphins will be enclosed in a four-acre pen. Money earned from the dolphin encounter programme will be used to support the education component.

    Plans include educational opportunities in marine science and conservation and will be offered to primary and secondary school students throughout Belize. The research component will be integrated into the education component of the project. The education component will be run by the Hugh Parkey Foundation for Marine Awareness and Education.

    The Bottlenose Dolphin would be used in the encounter programme, which involves tourist interacting with the dolphins for a 20-minute period, with activities such as photo opportunities, snorkeling and swimming with the dolphins.

    Infrastructure development of this project will necessitate dredging and reclamation. To date, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been completed for this proposal. A meeting was held on October 6th in Belize City and the general public had the opportunity to learn more about the project. The community then had until October 15th to submit their comments and concerns to the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (MNRE).

    This proposal has drawn strong opposition from the community, as well as conservation and non-government organizations including the San Pedro Tourist Guide Association, Friends of Swallow Caye and Destinations Belize. On November 15th, Belize's largest and most influential conservation organization, the Belize Audubon Society (BAS), released a four-page position paper on the proposed Spanish Bay project. BAS is dedicated to the sustained management of Belize's natural resource through leadership and strategic partnership with stakeholders in order to create a balance between people and the environment.

    Those opposed to the swim-with-dolphins park believe that if a captive dolphin facility were approved, it would be contradictory to Belize's current, and highly regarded reputation as a country offering ecologically sensitive eco-tourism and other sustainable environmental practices. It is the position of BAS that viewing wild marine mammals under artificial conditions is counterproductive to the great efforts taken by Belizean community-based organizations in their advocating for protected areas.

    The Belize Audubon Society recommends the rejection of the project unless the captive dolphin encounter programme is removed. BAS recognizes that advocacy, education and awareness are integral components required to fulfill its mission, and therefore acknowledge that the education component of the development is a valid one that can have positive benefits for students in Belize. However, the financial means of supporting the education, the captive dolphin programme, is inconsistent with the conservation and environmental education efforts of BAS. Rather than teaching respect and care of biodiversity and natural ecosystems, encounters with wild animals held in captivity, convey the message that wildlife is there for humans to exploit for their own pleasure and financial gain.

    According to the Belize Audubon Society, dolphins are listed on Appendix II under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Countries exporting animals listed under Appendix II must prove that removing these animals will not have a negative effect on the local population. There have not been studies of the wild population in Honduras from where the animals are originating, meaning that the implications for the wild stock are unknown. Although the Hugh Parkey Foundation intends on importing captive born dolphins from Honduras, this activity does impact the larger, internationally recognized, problem of trade in marine mammals and therefore contributes to the demand for more captures. As signatories of CITES, and the Cartagena Convention on Biological Diversity, it is Belize's duty to abide by international standards and norms.

    The Belize Audubon Society feels that the plan does not adequately address issues concerning the health of the animals, animals escaping or interacting with wild dolphin populations and the effects of disease transfer. The project also lacks a hurricane plan. BAS recommends that the Government of Belize make a policy to ban similar projects that hold marine mammals and other wild animals for economic purposes. BAS also noted that the HPF should implement sound research protocols to monitor the effect of dredging and filling activities on the reef, mangrove, and fish life within the buffering area.

    Only three studies of captive swim programs have been published. All three studies indicate that these programs are not humane for dolphins and can be dangerous for people. A study, which was conducted by marine biologist, Dr.Toni Frohoff, Ph.D., found that captive dolphins directed behaviors towards swimmers that were related to stress and aggression. Since it is not uncommon for captive dolphins to exhibit aggressive and sexual behaviors towards people, people interacting with them (especially children) can have very negative experiences. Broken bones, lacerations, internal injuries, and shock are just a few of the wounds reported by paying customers.

    According to Dr.Toni Frohoff Ph.D., Belize has an opportunity to continue to become increasingly recognized as a progressive country with respect to environmentally responsible eco-tourism and sustainable environmental practices. Rather than irreversibly depleting its own natural resources (or that of other countries' waters), Belize has great potential to enhance them further while still allowing the public to appreciate them. As stated by Ward et al. (2001), "The marine mammal fauna of the [Caribbean] region is diverse and has significant ecological, economic, aesthetic and amenity value to the countries of the Wider Caribbean. It is vital that these populations and their habitat are offered sustainable protection."

    Perhaps the most critical problem resulting from the dolphin park is the effect of fecal discharge from the dolphins. This discharge could impact the nearby barrier reef, located just two kilometers away, as well as the Swallow Caye Wildlife Sanctuary, which is less than five miles from the proposed dolphin enclosure. According to Dr. Thomas J. Goreau, Ph.D. President, Global Coral Reef Alliance, who studied the effect of dolphin cages on coral reefs at Chankanaab, Cozumel, Dr. Goreau found that "excess nutrients carried by currents from the dolphin cages appear to be causing serious coral reef overgrowth by weedy algae (eutrophication), especially by cyanobacteria, in the reefs to the south of the Chancanaab dolphin cages."

    In 2003, Jean-Michel Costeau, President of the Ocean Futures Society and son of the late Jacque Costeau, wrote a letter opposing a dolphin park that was proposed in the Caymans. His letter stated that swim-with-dolphin programs are simply a disaster in the making, both for the dolphins and for the people who visit them.

    The completed Environmental Impact Assessment report will now be presented to the National Environment Appraisal Committee (NEAC) for review and approval. Should NEAC approve the project, different sections of the proposal would then go to specific government departments for review and approval. Some of these departments include the Ministry of Tourism, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, Ministries of Fisheries and the Ministry of Environment. The Hugh Parkey Foundation would also be required to obtain a permit from CITES to transport the dolphins. CITES permits are issued through the Forestry Department.

    The Belize Audubon Society encourages those who are opposed to the dolphin-park to write to NEAC, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, the Ministry of Fisheries, the Ministry of Environment, the Hugh Parkey Foundation and the Forestry Department.
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