Cetacean Society International
Whales Alive! - Vol. XVI No. 3 - July 2007
By William Rossiter
The Solomon Islands again attracted international condemnation in June when at least twenty newly-captured Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops aduncus, appeared in the infamous pens used in the brutal and exploitive 2003 dolphin capture. The 2003 capture resulted in an illegal import to Mexico and a weakening of CITES (please see CSI's web-archived October, 2003 Whales Alive!). Half of those dolphins in Mexico have died since then. Given the Solomon Islanders' attitude towards this species of dolphin, it is very likely that many, many more died during the captures.
Running this travesty is Christopher Porter of Marine Export Ltd. (MEL), whose plan for MEL to become a major worldwide source for captive display dolphins includes feudal warlords, island chiefs, the Solomon Islands High Court, the CITES Secretariat, and currently a Dubai resort. He certainly convinced the Fisheries and Marine Resources Minister Nollen Leni that he can get away with another export, and many others in government believed him that there would be profits to the economy as the international market for display dolphins warmed up to this new source. To put it simply, he is bluffing everyone. CSI and many others are trying to see that he does not get away with it, and the hot issue continues as we go to press.
Only six lingering survivors remained, from a total of up to 140 dolphins in various pens from 2003, when Porter had them chased them out to sea to make room for the fresh batch. No one outside his brutally guarded operation knows how many captives died or were chased away sick, but at least 30 are rumored to be buried nearby.
Porter's plan relies on the CITES "non-determination finding" (NDF) that must accompany the export. The purpose of an NDF is to certify that the international trade in a CITES-listed species will not be detrimental to the population, backed up by credible data on the abundance and distribution of the listed plant or animal. No adequate data is known to exist for the Solomon Islands dolphins, according to many scientists CSI questioned. In late June Porter, finally admitting what everyone knows, hired a U.S. scientist to get some data, albeit a little late. Porter's MEL partners include Wildlife International Network Inc. (WIN), including Robin Friday, Mark Simmons, and Ted N. Turner, although Turner may have left. In Panama WIN calls itself "Ocean Embassy", where their extremely controversial permit to capture 80 local dolphins for captive display and probable sale continues to fuel such a public fury that it might be on hold when you read this.
The CITES Secretariat cannot reject an NDF, but can recommend that the importing nation question or reject the exporter's NDF. The dolphins now appear to be aimed at Dubai, which may follow the CITES expected recommendation and reject the import. Mexico did not follow CITES' recommendation to question the data in 2003, embarrassing the nation with the results. The Solomon Islands were not a member of CITES in 2003, but joined in late June. Will this have an effect on what everyone does?
Solomon Islands Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins captured
This really is about CITES, not just dolphins in peril. Other questionable NDFs have filtered through CITES, lowering the bar and endangering populations of several species. At the most recent COP 14, reported in Kate O'Connell's superb article in this issue, no member nation would bring up the issue, as if all want to keep a loophole in place in case they need it too. As an aside, with CITES issues being discussed in separate rooms, NGOs almost burned out their handheld devices keeping each other abreast of what was needed or happening; a true communication breakthrough for whales in particular!
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza's government imposed a ban on the export of dolphins after the 2003 debacle. This followed the nation's tuna industry acknowledgment that further exports would result in the boycott of their tuna, through Earth Island Institute's Dolphin-Safe Program, causing severe economic issues in an already struggling nation. This was during a chaotic time in the nation-archipelago, recovering from a 2000 coup, near bankruptcy, and with public violence by feuding warlords so terrible that a peacekeeping force led by Australia had been dispatched.
Chaos and hardship still exist, but the current government of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare removed the export ban in mid-June, and within days the Solomon Islands High Court had decided that the tuna companies were not bound by the dolphin-safe agreement, believing the faulty argument by Minister Leni that their tuna fishery killed no dolphins, and that the agreement should have nothing to do with exports for captive display.
The government's position often has been expressed through Minister Leni, whose diatribes to environmental groups and anyone else critical of the recent captures were the most unprofessional outbursts CSI has witnessed from any official in over thirty years. His vitriolic sarcasm demeaned his office and his nation. While Leni and others look forward to some profits to his nation from exploiting dolphins, it is not known how much Porter will share. From the perspective of the nation's citizens this species of dolphin is worthless anyway, and so what if someone wants to capture them all? The value of other dolphin species to Solomon Islanders is as food, or teeth to be used in bridal dowries. Tourism based on dolphins seems to be nonexistent, although Porter keeps insisting that it is part of his plan, eventually.
The timing of everything suggests that Porter's plan has been cooking quite a while. His tales of "data" included from 300,000 to 900,000 dolphins, so many dolphins in the nation's waters that, in Leni's words, a capture of even a thousand dolphins wouldn't affect the population. Experts CSI contacted haven't a clue what these numbers were pulled from.
The expert who may have the biggest picture of the species is Dr. John Wang, of FormosaCetus Research and Conservation Group and the Taiwan National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium. Dr. Wang is preparing an encyclopedic review of the species Porter wants to export, but he knows of nothing about the Solomon Islands population except from a cursory survey done in 2004 by Dr. Benjamin Kahn. Wang's opinion is that there is no adequate data. Dr. Kahn agrees with him. The Cetacean Specialist Group (CSG) of IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, has written to Solomon Island Ministries and the CITES Secretariat that: "We are not aware that any credible, peer-reviewed studies of bottlenose dolphins have been undertaken in the Solomon Islands since 2003 that would lead us to change the conclusion we reached at that time, i.e. that a non-detriment finding under CITES is not possible for these populations at present and that exports therefore should not take place."
Will Dubai get these new dolphins, marking the opening of a major captive display source in the mid-Pacific, or will CITES and member states have had enough, and make the rules work?