Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XIII No. 2 - April 2004


Maui Dolphins and the Ethics of Tagging Cetaceans


Which will it be, fish and chips or Maui dolphins? The survival of the endemic and tiny Maui dolphin of New Zealand may come down to whether they are worth more to the public than fishing profits are to a powerful commercial and recreational fishing lobby, part of which targets species that ultimately turn up as fish and chips. Survival may hinge on consumers realizing that eating fish and chips drives the net fisheries that in turn may drive these dolphins to extinction. Even after legal and political battles, numerous studies, and net restrictions, dolphins still are dying entangled in fishing nets. The net death of one dolphin every five years is unsustainable, but seven dolphins may have died from nets in the past three years. The reason may be that the dolphins use waters, such as harbors, where nets are still allowed. To further restrict nets DoC needs proof that the dolphins use these netted waters. Even with that proof DoC may lack the will to fight inevitable court battles with the fishing lobby.

But desperate to stop the extinction, DoC is proceeding with a controversial project to put satellite tags on an undisclosed number of Maui dolphins, prompting a flood of criticism from scientists, even from within DoC. The dolphins are only 1.7 meters long. Capturing and handling them will create stress. Bolting the 50-gram transmitter tags to their dorsal fins with metal pins will add more stress. A tagged dolphin's group may not be around when release finally comes, leaving a highly social animal isolated. Foot-long antennas to send signals to satellites will vibrate, causing irritation to tissue. Wounds may allow infections, enabled by immune systems suppressed by stress. All this is difficult to justify for one dolphin, but how many dolphins would have to be tagged to get proof? If there are fewer than 150 Maui dolphins alive today, and even one dolphin is compromised by such a tag, the research itself may hasten the dolphin's slide towards extinction.

Hector's Dolphin
Hector's Dolphin. Photo courtesy Ingrid Visser

Hector's Dolphins
Hector's Dolphins. Photo courtesy Ingrid Visser

The North Island's Maui dolphins look and act like the South Islands Hector's dolphin, but are genetically distinct and much more critically endangered. Somehow that made Hector's dolphins expendable, as three were tagged in early March to prove whether Maui dolphins could survive similar tagging. The experiment evaded public comment, and professional criticism went unheeded. Protocols were not public, the initial results have not been released, but there will be follow-ups to document post tag impacts.

Marine mammal specialists have questioned how useful the tagging data would prove to be. They have instead recommended non-invasive methods, such as aerial sightings. Even better, Care for the Wild International (UK) has just committed £25,000 for Porpoise Detection Device (PODs) acoustic surveys within harbors. These linked and calibrated hydrophone arrays would detect, track and log dolphin vocalizations, essentially providing more real time data on more animals within a given area than the tags could ever provide, all passively. These surveys may preclude any Maui dolphin tagging, and actually do something to save the species. Thank you Care for the Wild International!

Two stranded pilot whales, because of their satellite tags, are known to have survived more than eight months after being rehabilitated from a stranding in April, 2003, at Big Pine Key, Florida. Nearly a thousand volunteers had worked to rehabilitate five whales for four months prior to release. Four of the whales had been released with dorsal fin satellite tags, with the tags planned to fall off as pins disintegrated after a certain time in sea water. The youngest tagged male is known to have died early on, probably from a shark attack. Another whale's position was lost when the tag failed about 400 miles south of Galveston, Texas. The other two with tags remained together, moving up and down the east coast as far as North Carolina, before moving almost 500 miles east in September, possibly to avoid hurricanes. Their tags detached while they had moved back near Florida. For more information see http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/. At least two other rehabilitated, tagged and released pilot whales have survived as well.

Thousands of people for decades have tried many techniques, and risked their lives, to save stranded whales with a dedication and enthusiasm few of us have trouble understanding. Circumstances, resources, and innovations have resulted in many ways to "save" stranded whales, occasionally resulting in conflicts between people over which way was best. Many mass strandings have occurred in Australia and New Zealand, where the techniques to save them with short term, on-site rehabilitation and release have seemed incredibly successful. Without the potential or desire for long term rehabilitation of just a few, selected individuals in some captive facility, these efforts have focused on getting as many as possible of the stranded pod regrouped and stabilized, after a triage procedure to euthanize whales unlikely to survive, followed by a coordinated and sophisticated release based on decades of experience. The effort usually is judged a success if no whales restrand.

But having whales move strongly offshore, not to be seen again, was not considered proof of survival by skeptics. A few specialists believed that the whales may still have been suffering aftereffects of the stranding that would have them "swim to the horizon and die". Australia and New Zealand rejected the tagging of released whales, on ethical grounds. How many more pilot whales need to be tagged in the US to prove the concept that release works? Can anyone prove that a tags itself may be the reason a whale might not survive a release? Is further tagging of released whales ethical?

What happens when the tag falls off? CSI asked the question on the scientific network MARMAM, to prompt a discussion on the ethics of tagging. We were prodded by the Maui dolphin tagging project, photos of dorsal fins tattered by tags in past research, and very little evidence of follow-ups by most researchers to determine the actual impact on a tagged individual. "Success" is generally defined by the data from the tag. Tag failures, adverse reactions, destructive impacts, compromised reproduction, and post tag situations are not described sufficiently, either for the benefit of others interested in improving methods or for the evolution of ethical considerations in this invasive research tool.

Most of the flood of direct replies to our question asked that we keep their comments confidential. Few openly posted comments to MARMAM; this is a sensitive subject. We were also asked to delay any MARMAM follow-up, until principal tagging specialists returned from field work or had more time. In summary the comments supported our concern that there is a problem, even with constantly improving designs, that there are many finger-pointing anecdotes but little data, and some scientists are looking for commonly accepted guidelines. The issues were grazed during an ethics workshop at a major conference in December, but scheduled in competition with other workshops that many taggers felt they had to attend instead. CSI believes that an open, professional ethics discussion specific to dorsal fin and implanted tags would be very useful, as previous efforts, such as a 1999 right whale workshop, have not produced the desired results. We suggest also that an easy solution would result if funders and permiters required that projects budget time and money for follow-ups, and peer-reviewers required data on failures, impacts, and follow-ups.

As an indication of the problem we ask you to see http://dolphin-watch.com/TagProgression.html, a 2001 scientific paper titled "Progressions of Fin Change due to Dorsal Fin Tagging", by Kristen T. Mazzarella, et al, which reports on the results of tags on 14 tagged bottlenose dolphins off Virginia. Everyone agrees that tags and techniques are always improving, and current results probably would be better than the report showed. But the point is that, without more effort, few researchers can say for sure what the impacts to the tagged individuals were.


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