The Dolphin Fishery in Solomon Islands

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BY THE DEPARTMENT OF FISHERIES & MARINE RESOURCES OF SOLOMON ISLANDS
Introduction

Porpoise/dolphin harvesting and utilization has a long history in the Solomon Islands. In parts of Malaita, porpoise/dolphin hunting continues as a traditional activity. These communities had been utilizing porpoise/dolphin meat as a source of protein food and the teeth as traditional money for decades. Before the influence of commercialization, most of the traditional values were attached to bartering between coastal people (so called "saltwater" people) and inland people (the "bush" people), where porpoise/dolphin or dugong meat is traded in return for root crops. As traditional money, porpoise/dolphin teeth is used in paying bride prices, compensation, settling of disputes, purchasing of land and various agricultural produce. Hunting has been an integral part of the annual cycle of life in these areas, a center of social and ritual activity and a bridge between the human and the supernatural. Additionally, porpoise teeth are also used in decorations and as ornaments. Although the porpoise/dolphin fishery is principally subsistence in nature, increasingly, trading of porpoise/dolphin meat is now reaching Honiara markets for cash income.

The Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources is fully aware of the large number of criticisms and allegations leveled at it by environmentalists, animal rights activists (and lovers) and individuals both locally and overseas with regard to the capture and export of dolphins. Everyday the Department is bombarded with e-mails and faxes on this issue. The local media (both print and radio) also carry letters, articles and items on the issue almost on a daily basis.

Whilst everyone is free to express their opinions and views on any issue, they must be also mindful of the responsibilities carried with exercising such right, one of which is that the opinions and views expressed must be based on facts and be constructive. As a matter of fact, most if not all opinions and views received so far on the dolphin issue, in the view of the Department, are dictated more by personal emotions rather than anything else. They demonstrated a high degree of biasness and misconstrued propaganda. Though 95% of the allegations and media information are pure lies, the Department respects and appreciates all views and opinions expressed and will always welcome constructive ones.

The purpose of this press statement is not to invite unnecessary debate on this issue but rather, an opportunity whereby this Department will clarify the issues raised and to demonstrate the government's responsibility in ensuring that country's renewable resources (in this case, porpoise/dolphins) are not only protected but are also conserved through their proper and sustainable utilization for the benefit of its people and country.

The Status of Marine Mammals

Like many other resources we have in Solomon Islands, the status of marine mammals is not fully known. However, it is estimated that at least 13 species of porpoise/dolphins occur in the Solomon Islands waters (Hill, 1989).

Three communities on Malaita are involved in traditional dolphin hunting. They are Fanalei/Walande in the Southern part of the island, Bita'ama/Taeloa in the northwest and Sulufou in the northeast. There is anecdotal information that each of these communities kill between 200 and 500 dolphins on any one hunting season. In addition to the above, the Rumahui, Star Harbour and Ulawa communities in the Makira/Ulawa are also known to involve in traditional dolphin hunting.

Solomon Islands is not alone in the utilization of marine mammals. There are many countries that kill these animals either directly or indirectly. A few examples that may be used to illustrate this include United States, under approval by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), allows the Eskimos of Alaska to kill certain amount of bowhead and gray whales each year, Canada, a non IWC member kills about 700 blue whales out of 7000 every year and in the neighboring Australia, the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are allowed to kill and use dugongs (pers. Comm. Ted Hammond1).

Management Principles and the Precautionary Approach

The Department's development and management principle has always been "sustainable utilization" of the country's aquatic resources. This is to be based on scientific or best information available. Where such information is not available, the Fisheries Act 1998 stipulated that a precautionary approach may be taken. In this case, the Department has opted to apply the precautionary approach to the management of dolphins and marine mammals in Solomon Islands. An export quota of 100 animals (dolphins) per year is set and this is based on the best information available (anecdotal and community interview information). This quota is annual and subject to review thus can be altered accordingly (or as and when necessary) as more data becomes available. In addition to other sources of funding currently sought by the Department to carry out appropriate studies on the resource, a chargeable levy on exports will be used for this purposely also.

Responsible Authority

One of the questions commonly raised by people with regard to the dolphin issue is that of "Responsible Authority." The responsibility or the authority to manage marine mammals lies with the Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources. This Department has always been responsible for the management of cetaceans, which include dolphins and porpoises. Section 2 of the Fisheries Act 1998, clearly defined "fish" to include any aquatic animal, whether piscine or not. The fact that dolphins are aquatic animals brings such species under the jurisdiction of the Department.

Validity of the Gavutu Operation

The Solomon Islands Marine Mammal Education Centre (SIMMEC) has gone through and met all the legal requirements of the Solomon Islands. They obtained the relevant fisheries license after having satisfied all Foreign Investment Board requirements. The license issued to SIMMEC is for the company to operate the facility at Gavutu and to purchase dolphin from local fishermen only but not to hunt for dolphins.

The permit held by SIMMEC was issued in 2002 under s.32 of the Fisheries Act 1998 which allows for the export of live fish. It was issued at a time when a more detailed and species-based set of regulations were still in the formulation and drafting process. The powers inferred from s.32 renders the permit legal and effective, as it is wide in scope to cover dolphins.

Another common concern always raised with regard to s.32 is that concerning "assessment" of the resource before the granting of permit for import or export. Section 32 of the Fisheries Act does not make it compulsory for an "Impact Assessment" to be carried out before granting of a permit. It is within the discretion of The Director to determine what form of assessment, if necessary and practical is to be undertaken. In the case of SIMMEC, practical difficulties had prevented a scientific assessment to be carried out at short notice. Nonetheless, an interview assessment has been done prior to the granting of permit and a quota was determined as a precautionary approach as specified under s.4(c). Therefore, the decision taken here is based on the relevant provisions under the Fisheries Act 1998 particularly s.32 and s.4(c).

The Quota

The Department believed that the annual export quota of 100 dolphins is precautionary in itself. It would have been worth criticizing an open system whereby no quota or limit is set, thus allowing a permit holder to capture and export as many dolphins as he can in any year! The current quota is thus based on the best information available to the Director of this Department at this point in time. In deciding this quota, the following considerations were taken into account. Anecdotal information. It is estimated that between 200 and 500 animals are caught per season per community by the main dolphin hunting communities in Solomon Islands. The use of catches. At times a proportion of the catch has to be discarded especially when there was an excessive catch. In such cases, the head of the animals were cut off and kept for their teeth and the rest of the body thrown away. A proportion of the resource is wasted during successful hunting seasons. Wouldn't it be better if such excessive catch is utilized? License condition. The license issued to the operator has specific conditions that are being monitored by this Department. Among others (such as according the animals the highest level of humane treatment), the quota is one of these. Strictly, the quota is annual. This means, it is subjected to review and appropriate alteration as and when necessary depending on the availability of relevant data. License restriction. The Department restricts and controls the number of license to be issued. At the moment, exporting of dolphins is restricted to one operator only.

It is worthwhile to note that about 300,000 dolphins and other marine mammals are caught and discarded by purse seine fishing fleets each year (BBC World - July 24, 2003). In the eastern Pacific Ocean alone, the current dolphin mortality rate associated with tuna purse seining is approximately 2000 each year (IATTC1 Report, 2002). The same report also stated that results from abundance surveys undertaken by the SWFSC2 indicate that the dolphin stocks in the eastern Pacific have been stable or increasing for more than 20 years. This result is similar to anecdotal information gathered by this Department that dolphin catches by hunting communities within Solomon Islands have been stable for many years. The Department believes that the taking of 100 animals should not be a real concern here if someone from Solomon Islands and the country as a whole benefits from it as opposed to the number of discards by fishing fleets as noted above. Similarly, it is gathered from empirical knowledge and observation that dolphin abundance and the recruitment rate in our waters is relatively higher than most other parts of the world. Given this situation, wouldn't it be better for Solomon Islanders to exploit this abundant resource for economic returns so long as it is done sustainably?

CITES

Many people have raised concerns relating to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Solomon Islands is yet to be a signatory of this Convention. However, despite this, the government has always adhered to the requirements of this Convention when exporting listed species (resources) in the past. The recent export of 28 dolphins to Mexico is one such example. The government is aware of important obligations that CITES member countries have under the Convention and specifically with regard to the export of listed species under the Convention. Frankly, Solomon Islands as a non-member of CITES is not obligated by the requirement of the Convention but due to its concern for the proper conservation of its natural resources for future generations, it has, as noted above, always adhered to CITES requirements.

Dolphin Safe

An allegation by animal activists and individuals is that the dolphin export from Solomon Islands will have damaging repercussion on the dolphin safe trademark displayed on our tuna products and the tuna industry as a whole. Whilst it is true to say that dolphins are sometimes found in association with schools of tuna (the reason why many dolphins are caught and killed unnecessarily in purse seine nets), the Department can assure the public that this does not occur in the western Pacific. The dolphin safe trademark relates to the fishing method employed by the company to catch tuna. Soltai Fishing Company Ltd display this trademark on their product because the main fishing method used to catch tuna for their canned tuna products (Solomon Blue, Chilli Tuna, etc) i.e. "Pole and Line" is dolphin safe. In fact, this method is 100% dolphin safe. In addition, the fishery in Solomon Islands does not make its sets on dolphins as in the Eastern Pacific but rather on free schools or on floating logs and Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs). These facts will render further support to dolphin trademark of Soltai Fishing Company Limited.

The Gavutu Facility

On August 2, 2003, a team from the Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources visited and inspected the dolphin holding facility at Gavutu to ascertain the validity of the numerous allegations leveled against the operation by environmentalists and animal rights activists and individuals. A representative from the Australian Diplomatic mission was also present as an independent observer, so was an international consultant who is a specialist on dolphins. During this visit, the facility was assessed in two important areas. First, whether the facility meets international recognized standards and second, the level of animal stress and risk at the facility.

The Department was satisfied that the facility, as it now stands, meets the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) standard of the United States even at low tide. In addition, the facility also satisfies the Australian and European animal care standards at high tide but may not be during low tide. However, the Department understands that since this is a newly established investment, it would take some time for the facility to meet the requirements of these two standards during low tide as well. Steps are currently being undertaken (improvement) by the operator to address this requirement. (Copies of these standards are available with the Department). Furthermore, the Department is also satisfied that there were no evidence of 200 dolphins being kept in captivity at the facility as widely reported in the media. There were only 39 bottlenose dolphins kept at the facility.

The level of stress and risk to animals was assessed in light of the following key areas. (a) Feed (b) Water flow (c) Bacterial level (d) Animal care (in terms of number of person per dolphin) and (e) Transportation of animals.

It is quite obvious that the thirty-nine (39) dolphins (including a three (3) months old calf born in captivity) kept at the facility are very well fed. Each animal is fed 2 kilograms of fish per meal four times a day or 8 kilograms per day per animal. The feed consist of at least five (5) different species of fish and only whole fish are fed to the dolphins. The operator pays surrounding village fishermen about $20,000.00 each month for feed.

When considering water flow and exchange, the facility (holding pens) is located at one of the best sites. Not only that, the facility is of a good size (large one approximately 110m long by 60m wide and a smaller one about a third of the size of the large one). The large holding area is subdivided into 6 different pens and to allow dolphins to have access to all parts of the holding area, including the deepest part (which is 9m at low tide), the pens are interconnected and dolphins are being trained to swim from one pen to the other. Bottlenose dolphins (the only species kept at the facility) are the only marine mammal species that can tolerate shallow water. The large area covered by the facility means large volumes of water involved in flow and exchange which comes in from the nearby deep waters. No doubt, the holding pens receive good water flow and exchange during incoming and outgoing tides. Wave action at the site is quite minimal as it is relatively protected.

Contamination by bacteria (E. coli) in amusement parks and aquariums is a problem that needs to be consistently monitored. This problem often arises in static pools where water circulation is poor. The build up of the bacteria is dangerous for animals and therefore the level of contamination has to be monitored regularly. The level of contamination at the Gavutu facility is monitored on a monthly basis and so far the results have been negative. A recommendation has been made to the operator to do weekly sampling for bacterial build up in the holding facility.

SIMMEC employs a total of 40 people, twenty-two (22) of whom work at the Gavutu facility and 18 in Honiara. This is a ratio of one person caring for two dolphins. Furthermore, two qualified Veterinarian doctors are engaged in the health care of these animals. These animals have far more Doctors per head compared to humans in Solomon Islands. Also, the fact that majority of dolphins are now been hand-fed, is an indication that the level of care for the dolphins at the facility is satisfactory.

An area of great concern for any facility keeping marine mammals is that of transportation of animals from the points of capture to holding facility. The risk of animals receiving injuries is greater especially when capture area is far from the holding facility. At the moment, all the animals kept at the Gavutu facility are caught in the proximity of the facility. The operator does not encourage transporting dolphins over long distances (especially from other provinces) without proper training and equipment.

It is evident from the issues discussed above that the capture/hunting methods and husbandry of dolphins at the Gavutu facility is quite good. The animals are normal: feeding well, mating, very active and playful, giving birth in captivity and not showing any signs of stress. Although very active and playful at times, according to facility employees, animals do not fight each other. An animal born in captivity is now 3 months old. This would not have been so if animals are subjected to much stress and were not treated well at the facility.

Dolphins in Captivity

This is the first time a marine mammal is kept in captivity in Solomon Islands. As a new industry, the Department expects environmentalists, animal rights activists and other individuals to raise concerns especially with regard to the welfare of these animals. Let it be known to such environmentalists, activists and individuals that these concerns have been well addressed through regulatory means.

Dolphins and other marine mammals have been held in Aquariums and Amusement Parks in other countries longer than Solomon Islands. The number held in captive in other countries are many times greater than what is held in captive at the Gavutu facility. Keeping dolphins in captivity (Aquariums and Amusement Parks) is not all negative but also has a lot of advantages. In the world today, about 50 million people (pers. Comm. Ted Hammond) visit Aquariums every year to watch and learn about dolphins and other marine mammals. In their natural environment, it is difficult for scientists to conduct proper research on these animals. By keeping these animals in Aquariums, the animals can be easily studied thus contributing not only to our understanding of the animal but also to our knowledge and advancement in other fields like medicine e.g. as in Dolphin Therapy etc.

Concerned animal activists and environmentalists should realize that such an undertaking as that by the SIMMEC at Gavutu is a form of eco-attraction center, whereby tourists and center visitors, would have a chance to swim and play with Dolphins. This would enhance the strengthening of dolphin-man relationship, which we are all concerned about. In the long term therefore, even those coastal hunting communities would develop a new relationship with dolphins, one that is based on respect and compassion. The result would be the less slaughtering of dolphins by these communities and perhaps, a redirection of their dolphin utilization, towards the eco-attraction option.

Already the SIMMEC is developing a database for the facility at Gavutu. All animals kept at the facility would be marked electronically for identification and monitoring purposes. Necropsy would be done on dead animals to ascertain cause of death. Various other information relating to the operation would be stored on this database and this would not only be useful for the sound operation of the Gavutu facility but also for the proper management of the dolphin resource in Solomon Islands.

Other Issues

Mr. Christopher Porter, the operator of the Gavutu facility has never at any time been the mouthpiece of the Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources as implied by many. On the number of occasions that he came out in the media, what he did was simply to defend his position and company as a genuine investor but certainly not on behalf of the Department. It is quite unfortunate that the many criticisms leveled at this individual bears little merit and most, if not all, are narrow-focused considering the level of investment he has done in this country to date.

Conclusion

The Department of Fisheries has nothing to hide. We are open and would be most willing to answer any questions directed to us. Unfortunately some people, especially the NGOs and the so called environmentalists, have without seeking to understanding the real situation, went to the media and started blowing out their trumpets to the outside world with unsubstantiated information.

Solomon Islands advocates sustainable utilization of natural resources. That is, where a resource is proven to be in a healthy state, the resource may be allowed to be harvested by the people for their benefit. Likewise, where a resource has been proven to face an over-exploitation risk, then appropriate measures must be taken to make sure that the resource is protected. You may have realized that recently the Department has gone tough in enforcing its laws relating to the harvest of marine resources. As a Department responsible for to the people of Solomon Islands, it must ensure that whilst healthy resources are allowed to be harvested, they are also protected from over-exploitation.

Additionally Solomon Islands also attaches great importance to fisheries, that have traditional values, such as the porpoise/dolphin fishery. In this respect, the Solomon Islands has been a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to ensure that cetacean resources, especially the porpoises/dolphin, of the country are sustainably utilized for the benefit of the people. By the way, small cetaceans which include dolphins are not classified under the IWC.

As long as there is scientific proof, (and perhaps traditional proof) that cetacean resources are under utilized, the Solomon Islands will continue to support the utilization of such resources for the benefit of the people of the country.

  1. Mr. Ted Hammond is a consultant and expert on cetaceans. He has more than 30 years experience with cetaceans and was a member of the team that visited the Gavutu facility recently.
  2. Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission
  3. Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Hon. NELSON KILE
Minister of Fisheries & Marine Resources
Solomon Islands

and

ALBERT WATAH
Permanent Secretary of Fisheries & Marine Resources
Solomon Islands

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