Hands off, Hawaii: Swimming with dolphins disallowed

  • This undated photo provided by NOAA Fisheries shows Spinner dolphins in Hawaii surrounded by people seeking close interactions as multiple boats and dozens of people are sometimes in the water with dolphins at once.The National Marine Fisheries Service published its final rule banning the popular practice of swimming with the mammals in Hawaiian waters effective Oct. 28 saying the regulation under the Marine Mammal Protection Act is necessary to protect the nocturnal animals from those seeking encounters with the playful species. (NOAA Fisheries via AP, File)

  • Associated Press The National Marine Fisheries Service published its final rule banning the popular practice of swimming with the mammals in Hawaiian waters effective today, saying the regulation under the Marine Mammal Protection Act is necessary to protect the nocturnal animals from those seeking encounters with the playful species.

Swimming with Hawaiian spinner dolphins is now a thing of the past.

The National Marine Fisheries Service last month published its final rule banning the popular practice in Hawaiian waters effective today, saying the regulation under the Marine Mammal Protection Act is necessary to protect the nocturnal animals from those seeking encounters with the playful species.

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At a zoom meeting of the West Hawaii Fishery Council last Thursday, further details of the rule including enforcement efforts were discussed. The council is a volunteer council that represents diverse community interests and gives advice to the state on management of the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area and relevant issues.

Kevin Brindock, deputy assistant regional administrator of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, said the ban was necessary because spinner dolphins are exposed to high levels of disturbance in resting habitats.

“In some bays of Hawaii, dolphins are exposed to human activities over 80% of the time, facing heavy and increasing pressures from the wildlife viewing industry, spiritual retreats, self-guided tours and individuals who seek opportunities to interact with these animals throughout the day,” he said.

NOAA is responsible for all rules and enforcement in partnership with other agencies.

David Carruthers, a special agent with the National Marine Fisheries Service Office of Law Enforcement, Pacific Islands Division, explained how the new rules will be enforced now that the practice of swimming with naia is illegal.

“MMPA is one of the few laws that we have as a probable cause arrest on scene, but that’s not what we are here for,” he said. “It would have to be a pretty gross violation. We have a uniformed division that will approach a person and give outreach and education to that person and give a warning. If it is a clear violation, there are steps towards for civil summary settlement, which has a set amount that they can fine you for. It can be anywhere from $100 to $500. If it’s a second violation, that automatically goes to a notice of violation assessment to our federal enforcement lawyers, which can go all the way to $10,000.”

He said the office of enforcement is also partnering with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Wildlife Service.

Those agencies need individuals to be their eyes and ears, he said. A NOAA tip line is available for those witnessing rule violators at (888) 256-9840. Reports to DOCARE can be made at (808) 643-3567 or through the DLNRtip mobile app.

The rule, in the making since about 2005, prohibits swimming with or getting within 50 yards (45.7 meters) of a spinner dolphin that is within 2 nautical miles of the shore of the main Hawaiian Islands. The rule applies to persons, boats, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, drones or other objects.

That means being within 1/2 of a football field of the mammal, by any means, including swimming or intercepting by boat the mammal’s path, is outlawed — statewide.

“Although unauthorized take of marine mammals, including harassment of spinner dolphins, already is and continues to be prohibited under the MMPA throughout their range, the purpose of this regulation is to identify and prohibit specific human activities that result in take (including harassment) of Hawaiian spinner dolphins, and thus reduce disturbance and disruption of important Hawaiian spinner dolphin behaviors in areas where human-dolphin interactions are most likely to occur,” the rule reads. “This regulation is expected to reduce take of Hawaiian spinner dolphins and the impact of human viewing and interaction on these animals in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI).”

In addition to the final rule, NOAA announced a proposed rule to establish time-area closures at four sites in West Hawaii and one on Maui. The proposed rule would establish mandatory time-area closures of Hawaiian spinner dolphins’ essential daytime habitats from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily in certain areas of Kealakekua Bay, Honaunau Bay, Kauhako Bay (Ho‘okena), and Makako Bay, as well as La Perouse Bay on Maui.

The proposed closures do not impact the entiriety of each bay, with just certain areas off-limits during certain hours. For example, in Kealakekua Bay, the popular snorkeling area off Captain Cook Monument would remain accessible to boaters and swimmers from shore because the proposed off-limits area is located primarily offshore and below the pali.

Comments will be accepted by NOAA on the proposal through Dec. 27. The proposed rule can be viewed at https://bit.ly/3ifySw3.

Amber Datta, WHFC chairperson, said the committee will be submitting its suggestions and comments to NOAA on the proposed closures.

Swimming with Hawaiian spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) is a popular activity among tourists and residents in Hawaii that generates millions annually. A host of companies offer tours that take swimmers to areas frequented by dolphins with the aim of giving them an opportunity to get in the water with the animals.

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Hawaii’s wild dolphin tourism industry in 2013 generated an estimated $102 million on Hawaii Island and Oahu with dolphin viewing generating $58.6 million and swimming $39.2 million, according to a study of 77 dolphin tour companies by researchers with the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Duke University and York University published in August 2020 in Frontiers of Marine Science.

According to the study, an estimated 524 to 761 Hawaiian spinner dolphins, or naia, reside in waters around Kailua-Kona and 329 around Oahu. They’re frequently seen close to shore and are known for their tri-colored pattern, relatively small size at 5-6 feet and ability to spin while leaping in the air.

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