Loving nature to death in Hawaii

More people and more activity in Hawaii waters means more impact on ocean creatures, and the entertaining spinner dolphins might be the most stressed. It’s a case of “loving nature to death,” said Tori Cullins, chief executive director of the Wild Dolphin Foundation.

Adequate rest for the friendliest of sea mammals is critical, said Steve Soto-Amundson, of the South Kona Preservation Coalition, and he says many are not getting it.

Dolphins constantly performing for tourists can suffer disruption in their eating and reproduction habits and become more vulnerable to predators, Soto-Amundson said.

Continued disruptions often push pods to seek less ideal resting areas, he said, which could put them in harm’s way, either from human activity or sharks.

While humpback whales have their own sanctuary and advisory council, and a handful of other marine creatures are protected by federal designations, dolphins don’t have that kind of protection.

But spinner dolphins have a growing number of champions.

On Oahu’s Waianae coast, Cullins and her non-profit organization have lobbied the Legislature for four years to create an ocean recreation management area and to limit the number of boat tours.

This year, the effort might finally be successful. A bill that limits commercial activity permits issued by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and establishes the West Oahu Ocean Recreation Management Area was passed by the Senate and has passed second reading in the House.

Cullins said stricter regulations will be welcome, but she understands tour boat operators are trying to make a living and acknowledges some make an effort to incorporate conservation and education elements in their tours.

“The basic problem is a lack of regulations,” she said. “It was fine a few years back when there were fewer people, but as Waianae has become a tourist hot spot, impacts on the dolphin pods has grown exponentially.”

Four years ago, she said, six boats operated dolphin-watching tours along the coast. This week, she counted 11 companies offering a dolphin experience, including one operation that launches 15 kayakers at a time.

The increased numbers seem to be driving away the dolphins. Cullins heard one recent report of 75 people in the water with just eight dolphins.

She also cited reports of tour boats repeatedly racing past pods to drop snorkellers in their path.

“We are becoming Kealakekua Bay the Second,” Cullins said, referring to the Big Island bay spinner dolphins have long called home.

Kona’s Soto-Amundson said he has been monitoring dolphin pods in Honaunau Bay, Hookena Bay and Kealakekua Bay for nearly a decade and has noticed dramatic changes.

Pod sizes, which typically number between 18 and 32, are dropping, and pods are becoming more fragmented. According to some studies, the number of dolphins in Kealakekua Bay decreased by as much as 25 percent during the 1990s.

One major reason is that tour boats, swimmers, snorkellers and kayakers are disturbing the pods during their daily resting period, roughly between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Soto-Amundson said.

While local tour companies honour a gentleman’s agreement to keep passengers out of Kealakekua Bay during those hours, he said that is not enough.

“We should take the cautious road. There might be other factors, but you can’t have human activity in an area of rest for any marine mammal without serious negative impacts,” he said.

“If we do nothing, the pattern of the last 10 to 12 years will continue.”

He calls for stronger federal regulations and stricter enforcement to protect spinner dolphins off the Big Island, even as more and more people visit the bay.

Tracking the popularity of a booming business, Soto-Amundson said a 2002 Internet search of the words “wild dolphin swim Hawaii” yielded 2,250 Web sites. By last October that number had risen to 17,500.