December 15, 2011

Dr. Ibrahim Didi
Minister of Fisheries
Ground Floor Ghaazee Building Ameeru Ahmed Magu
Malé 20-05
Republic of Maldives

Dear Minister Didi:

On behalf of the more than 11 million supporters of Humane Society International (HSI), I am writing in regard to the news, reported in the government gazette, that in October the Maldives cabinet approved a request to build a dolphinarium in a lagoon located between Thilafushi and Baros. HSI strongly opposes proposals to build new dolphin parks (also known as dolphinariums), especially in regions where such facilities do not already exist, as this may mean that animals must be imported or captured from the wild and/or appropriate local expertise is lacking. HSI strongly urges you to reconsider your support for this proposal.

The construction of dolphinariums is a backward step for any region to take. True ecotourism has minimal costs to the environment and maximum benefits for the local community. Dolphinariums in new areas do not comply with either of these requirements. The construction of a dolphinarium is a high-impact endeavor, often requiring substantial environmental disruption. If wild dolphin captures to supply the facility are contemplated, an entirely separate host of environmental concerns is introduced. As for local benefits, in many areas where dolphinariums have been recently introduced, the expertise for these facilities comes from outside (primarily the U.S. and Europe), meaning the best-paying jobs do not go to locals and often the majority of revenue goes to non-nationals. We cannot say for certain if this would be the case here, but it seems likely from the description of your visits to Florida theme parks such as SeaWorld that the biggest benefits would not be to the local community.

The practice of exhibiting dolphins and other marine mammals to the public has become increasingly controversial. Dolphinarium construction and operation is in decline in the developed world, but is still increasing in the developing world. This is a disturbing trend, given the lack of expertise in these regions. Countries such as Costa Rica have taken a courageous stand against the public display of dolphins, to complement their strong support for environmental protection.

Dolphinarium proponents sometimes provide government officials with information about dolphin captures and captive dolphins that is inaccurate, out-dated, and biased. HSI hopes that the information and perspectives provided in this letter will allow you to make an informed decision on this proposal based on the best available scientific evidence and sound wildlife and environmental management practices.

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Wild Dolphin Populations and Ecosystems

The demand for captive dolphins does more than harm the individual captured – it can threaten dolphin populations and the marine ecosystem (Reeves et al. 2003). The capture of even a few animals can result in the death or injury of many more dolphins, since the capture activities involve intensive harassment of a group or groups. In addition, it can negatively impact already depleted dolphin populations by removing breeding (or otherwise important) members from the group. The National Marine Fisheries Service in the United States has acknowledged that “The animals removed from the wild for permanent maintenance in captivity often represent only a proportion of the total take [‘take’ being defined under U.S. law as killing, capturing, injuring, or harassing] during a live capture operation” (NMFS 1989, p. 33). In addition, social networks in these highly social species can be disrupted when key individuals are removed, whether through natural mortality or as a result of hunting or capture operations (Williams and Lusseau 2006; Lusseau and Newman 2004; Wells 2003).

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) notes that dolphins should not be removed from the wild unless their population has been thoroughly assessed. It agrees that removing individuals can reduce a population’s long-term viability and compromise its role in an ecosystem. Thorough assessments would include “delineation of stock boundaries, abundance, reproductive potential, mortality, and status (trend)” (Reeves et al. 2003, p. 17) and cannot be conducted without significant investment of time and funding. Without a willingness to invest the necessary resources to do a proper population assessment, to date not shown by any known capture operators, no government should approve the establishment of dolphinariums that will be stocked by wild-caught animals.

Furthermore, removal of dolphins from the wild can result in (currently) unknown but potentially harmful impacts to the local environment, especially when so little is known about many marine ecosystems and dolphin populations. Marine mammals, as top-level predators, can play an important and beneficial role in maintaining the health of fisheries (Kaschner and Pauly 2004); for example, dolphins may prey on fish species that are predators of commercially important fish.

Dolphin Welfare and Survivorship

Capture and transport are inarguably stressful and dangerous for dolphins. Physiological indications of stress associated with capture and captivity include elevated adrenocortical hormones (St. Aubin and Geraci 1988; Thompson and Geraci 1986; Curry 1999) and impaired cell function (Noda et al. 2007). Small and DeMaster (1995a) found that mortality rates of captured bottlenose dolphins shoot up six-fold immediately after capture and do not drop down to “normal” levels for up to 35-45 days.

To our knowledge, no studies have demonstrated that the average or maximum lifespan of dolphins is statistically greater in captivity than in the wild, despite the claims of some facilities. In fact, two studies (Small and DeMaster 1995b; Woodley et al. 1997) determined that survivorship rates in bottlenose dolphins through the mid-1990s remained persistently lower than in free-ranging animals (although the differences were no longer statistically significant). Although this indicates that dolphin husbandry has improved over the years, it has not done so to the extent that dolphins live longer in captivity. This is notable considering that one might expect captive dolphins to live longer (as do many terrestrial wildlife species in zoos) because of veterinary care and protection from predators and pollution.

As a result of these data, as well as U.S. public concern, there has not been a capture of dolphins from U.S. waters for public display since 1993. A voluntary moratorium has been in place since 1989 on the capture of bottle nose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico and along the U.S. Atlantic coast. The governments of several countries have already denied permits to capture dolphins from the wild for public display. In the last decade, the Environment Secretary of Mexico declared a moratorium on the capture of dolphins from the wild and the government of Antigua revoked a permit it had earlier issued for the capture of up to 12 dolphins annually from local waters. Panama chose not to issue a permit for the capture of up to 80 dolphins over five years from its waters. The Solomon Islands has banned all exports of live dolphins effective January 2012. These decisions were in part the result of the information the government received from advocacy groups such as HSI and others, demonstrating, among other things, the lack of accurate population assessments.

Exposure to loud sounds – airborne and underwater – can also stress dolphins. The sensitive hearing of dolphins is well-established and numerous studies, many on-going, are documenting the harmful effects that anthropogenic noise can have on them. Sound travels very well through water and even airborne (e.g., aircraft, music) sounds can penetrate the air-water interface and be heard by captive animals. When dolphins cannot remove themselves from prolonged, loud sounds, physiological stress and damage can result.

Facilities in areas with hurricanes and typhoons are at additional risk. A land-based facility in the state of Mississippi was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and several animals, including eight dolphins, were washed out to sea and injured. Therefore, safety for the dolphins is not necessarily enhanced by moving a facility from the sea to land.

Educational Value

HSI is unaware of any peer-reviewed studies1 documenting that exposure to, or interaction with, captive dolphins increases the public’s knowledge level or concern about dolphins and the environment. The most in-depth survey conducted by the public display industry and published as a white paper was critiqued unfavorably by a peer- reviewed evaluation of its methods and results (Marino et al. 2010). In fact, there is reason to believe that captive dolphin attractions actually miseducate the public about wildlife and the marine environment. Not only does the public not learn much, if anything, about the real life of dolphins, but they are led to believe that the tricks they see are how dolphins truly behave in the wild and that the dolphins are pets and have value only in the context of their relationship to humans.


The public display of whales and dolphins is declining in popularity in the developed world. It would be regressive for the Maldives to build a dolphinarium now, when the popularity of this type of exhibit has almost certainly peaked and begun a global decline. Rather than irreversibly damaging and altering its natural resources and offering an out-dated entertainment by building artificial “copy-cat” wildlife attractions, the Maldives should instead promote its unique natural beauty and cultural riches.

We hope that this information may contribute to the recognition that capturing dolphins from the wild for the expansion (through either captive breeding or directly stocking collections) of dolphinariums is harmful not only to the dolphins involved, but also to marine ecosystems. HSI respectfully requests your ministry to reconsider its support for a dolphinarium. We urge you instead to give serious consideration to alternative tourist endeavors that would be truly environmentally responsible.

Thank you for your consideration of our views on this important matter and please feel free to contact us if we can provide you with further information.




Naomi A. Rose, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist

1We know only of professional opinion polls and customer surveys conducted and analyzed by dolphinariums themselves. These types of surveys tend to be mere reflections of the visitors’ perceptions, not of the true effectiveness of any education or information transfer.


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