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  • Contando la injusticia

Human Society objeta delfinario de Ocean Embassy

Humane Society

February 7, 2007

The Honorable Martín Torrijos Espino
Presidencia de la República de Panamá
Panamá 1
República de Panamá

Re: Ocean Embassy Panamá proposal

Dear President Torrijos:

On behalf of the more than 9.5 million members and constituents of Humane Society International (HSI), I am writing in regard to the proposal by Ocean Embassy Panamá (OEP) to build a dolphinarium and capture 28 (and eventually up to 80) wild bottlenose dolphins in Panamanian waters. HSI strongly opposes any proposal to capture wild dolphins, but this proposal in particular is ill-conceived and non-precautionary and violates several well-established sustainable management principles. HSI recommends that the government of Panamá deny or revoke any permit to allow the construction of the OEP dolphin facility, but in particular we urge you to deny or revoke any permit to allow the capture of dolphins from local waters.

The OEP proposal, despite the rhetoric its representatives use to portray it as a conservation initiative, is in fact for a commercial swim-with-the-dolphin (SWTD) operation that will use locally captured dolphins. If I understand the proposal correctly, at least 28 of these animals will be captured (from both Pacific and Caribbean stocks) before any population assessments are completed. This number is misleadingly referred to as a “precautionary” quota in an OEP press release dated January 29, 2007. There is nothing precautionary about removing dolphins from a local stock before completing an accurate population assessment to guide quota calculations. Globally accepted sustainable management practices mandate the determination of a population estimate with reasonable confidence intervals before any removals (lethal or live) occur. OEP’s portrayal of its intention as sustainable and precautionary sounds laudable, but is completely inaccurate.

In addition, OEP’s claim that a captive breeding program is “essential” to dolphin conservation and research is false. Most current critical dolphin research is being conducted on wild stocks and captive research programs are already established in several locations. Bottlenose dolphin captive breeding programs are also well-established in existing dolphinariums and aquariums in regions such as North America, Europe, and Asia. Capturing dozens of wild dolphins to establish a breeding program whose “products” (dolphin calves) will be sold to other dolphinariums is essential only to this commercial venture, not to any conservation initiatives, education programs, or research projects.

Your government, a leading light in the Caribbean and Pacific on several environmental issues, should not base its decisions on the management advice of any organization whose commercial ambitions set up a conflict of interest with conservation or education goals. The views on live capture of wild dolphins held by many leading scientists in the international marine mammal research community differ considerably from those of OEP’s representatives. I am attaching two statements, one from small cetacean expert Randall R. Reeves and one from internationally recognized bottlenose dolphin biologist Randall S. Wells, which outline concerns over the OEP proposal as described in the January 29th press release. These are the voices to which the Panamanian government should listen, not those of dolphinarium entrepreneurs who invoke “conservation”, “education” and “precaution” as buzzwords with little regard for their true meaning.

As noted above, HSI strongly opposes wild captures as a means of stocking dolphinariums or captive breeding programs. We are extremely concerned about the continued capture of dolphins from what may already be depleted stocks in Caribbean and Pacific waters. Indeed, because transporting dolphins (even those who are captive-bred) is highly stressful, we oppose the establishment of new facilities altogether, especially in the Caribbean where the natural beauty of the coastal environment does not need artificial attractions such as dolphinariums.

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 decisions on this issue based on the best available scientific evidence and sound wildlife and environmental management practices.

Wild Dolphin Populations and Ecosystems

The demand for captive dolphins does far 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 can be disrupted when key individuals are removed, whether through natural mortality or as a result of hunting or capture operations (Lusseau and Newman 2004; Wells 2003).

The World Conservation Union/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 ecosystem role. 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 date not shown by any Caribbean capture operators , no government in the Caribbean should approve the establishment of dolphinariums that will be stocked by wild-caught animals.

SWTD programs are especially problematic in this regard because female dolphins are preferred for these programs (females are typically less aggressive and sexual towards humans than male dolphins). Many studies of wildlife populations (e.g., Oldfield 1988) have demonstrated that removal of females can result in long-term negative consequences to mammal populations.

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 the marine ecosystem and dolphin populations, as is the case for the wider Caribbean region (Ward et al. 2001). 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). 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 bottlenose 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. Most recently, 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. This reversal was in part the result of the information the government received from advocacy groups such as HSI and others in the Caribbean, demonstrating the lack of accurate population assessments in the region. The capture of dolphins for facilities in the Caribbean has already sparked notable international controversy in the media and will likely increase with additional captures.

Even when dolphins are maintained in sea pens rather than concrete tanks, the complete lack of environmental control can result in wholly inadequate and poor conditions for captive dolphins. For example, water temperature cannot be controlled in pens where dolphins may be forced to remain in shallow water with excessive exposure to the sun, resulting in sometimes dangerously high water temperatures.

Water quality also cannot be controlled in these pens. Captive dolphins can be forced to remain in stagnant, shallow water adjacent to human activity that may contain considerably higher concentrations of marine contaminants than they would encounter in the wild. Obviously such exposure to marine pollution can lead to illness and death. Although the Bocas del Toro region appears to be relatively pristine today, increased development as tourism increases may lead to future problems.

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.

Sea pens located on Caribbean islands are at additional risk from storm and hurricane conditions. Several facilities were heavily impacted during the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, especially in the Yucatan, Mexico, and the Gulf of Mexico (Hurricane Katrina completely destroyed a dolphinarium in Gulfport, Mississippi, sweeping eight dolphins out to sea). Surge, water contamination, and erosion are all dangers facing sea pen enclosures (and the dolphins in them) in storm conditions. Dolphins have been inadvertently released (and some were not recovered) during hurricanes in the Bahamas and Honduras, for example, and several dolphins died in 2003 at a facility in La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico, after a severe storm contaminated the pen’s water with sewage outfall. A tank facility on Anguilla is on a promontory that is at serious risk of collapse should a storm or hurricane undermine the substrate upon which it rests, so building a tank does not necessarily offer adequate protection from storms.

Sea pens in coral reef habitat also pose a risk to the reefs. Dolphins produce a great deal of waste – if tidal flow is inadequate at the sea pen location, this waste can accumulate around and through reefs, causing abnormal levels of algal growth, which suffocates and kills corals. Biodiversity on such reefs decreases substantially – a recent study by Goreau (2003) suggests that this negative impact on reefs near dolphin pens has already occurred in Cozumel, Mexico.

SWTD – Dangers to Dolphins

Two studies of captive SWTD programs strongly suggest that these programs are not humane for dolphins (Frohoff 1993, 1995; Samuels and Spradlin 1995). These studies found that captive dolphins directed behaviors towards swimmers that were related to stress and aggression. In addition, captive dolphins frequently behaved submissively to swimmers even when the swimmers were small in stature, relatively stationary, and did not behave aggressively. Both studies observed stress-related behaviors in dolphins that were related to potentially negative physiological effects. A third study showed that captive dolphins prefer to avoid swimmers (Kyngdon et al. 2003).

SWTD – Dangers to Swimmers

SWTD programs pose a true danger to human participants. Dolphins carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans (and vice versa) (Geraci and Ridgway 1991; Mazet et al.
2004). Furthermore, they are wild animals and are unpredictable, even when trained. It is not uncommon for people to be injured when swimming with captive dolphins (NMFS 1990). Even trainers with extensive experience have been seriously injured by captive dolphins (Defran and Pryor 1980). Most participants and government officials are unaware of the injuries people incur when swimming with captive dolphins, as the injuries are generally not reported. Such injuries have included broken bones, internal injuries, and serious wounds. In addition to the 18 or so documented by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the United States within a five-year period, many more injuries went unreported during this time.

Educational Value

HSI is unaware of any peer-reviewed studies documenting that exposure to, or interaction with, captive dolphins increases the public’s knowledge level or concern about dolphins and the environment. 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.

Also, SWTD programs likely perpetuate the problems facing wild dolphins by miseducating people that it is responsible to touch and feed these wild animals. As a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service stated, “There is growing concern that feeding pools, swim programs, and other types of interactive experiences with marine mammals in display facilities may perpetuate the problem of the public feeding and harassment of marine mammals in the wild, especially if they do not educate their guests to respect wildlife” (Frohoff 2003). In fact, it seems ironic that people are basically encouraged to interact with captive dolphins in ways that are considered “harassment” with free-ranging dolphins – and thus illegal in some countries.


Panamá is widely recognized as a progressive country with respect to environmental responsibility. Rather than irreversibly damaging and altering its natural resources and unnecessarily competing with its neighbors by building artificial “copy-cat” wildlife attractions, it has great potential to remain a unique example of natural beauty. As stated by Ward et al. (2001), “The marine mammal fauna of the [Caribbean] region is diverse and has significant ecological, economic, aesthetic and amenity value to the countries of the Wider Caribbean. It is vital that these populations and their habitat are offered sustainable protection.”

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 Ocean Embassy Panamá to abandon its plan to construct a dolphinarium and capture 28 dolphins. If OEP refuses to do so, we respectfully ask the Panamanian government to deny or revoke permission to OEP to build a dolphinarium in Bocas del Toro or to capture wild dolphins in Panamanian waters. We urge both to give serious consideration to alternative tourist endeavors that would be truly environmentally responsible and safer for both animal and human participants.

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.
Marine Mammal Scientist
Oceans and Wildlife Protection


Cc: The Honorable Federico Humbert Arias, Ambassador
The Honorable Samuel Lewis Navarro, Minister of Foreign Relations


Curry, B.E. 1999. Stress in mammals: the potential influence of fishery-induced stress on dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFSC-260 (http://swfsc.nmfs.noaa.gov/prd/congress/Curry%20Lit%20Review/Lit_Rev.html)

Defran, R. H. and K. Pryor. 1980. The behavior and training of cetaceans in captivity. Pages 319-364 in L. Herman (ed.). Cetacean Behavior: Mechanisms and Functions. John Wiley and Sons, New York.

Frohoff, T.G. 1993. Behavior of Captive Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and Humans During Controlled In-Water Interactions. Master’s thesis, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.

Frohoff, T.G. 2000. Behavioral indicators of stress in odontocetes during interactions with humans: a preliminary review and discussion. International Whaling Commission SC/52/WW2.

Frohoff, T.G. 2003. The kindred wild. In Frohoff, T. and Peterson, B. (eds.). Between Species. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, California.

Frohoff, T.G. and J.M. Packard. 1995. Interactions between humans and free-ranging and captive bottlenose dolphins. Anthrozoös 8:44-54.

Geraci, J.R. and S.H. Ridgway. 1991. On disease transmission between cetaceans and humans. Marine Mammal Science 7:191-193.

Goreau, T.J. 2003. Dolphin enclosures and algae distributions at Chankanaab, Cozumel: observations and recommendations. Report of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (http://www.globalcoral.org/Dolphin%20enclosures%20and%20algae%20distributions%20at%20Chankanaab,%20Co.htm)

Kaschner, K. and D. Pauly. 2004. Competition between Marine Mammals and Fisheries: Food for Thought. Report for The Humane Society of the United States/Humane Society International, Washington, DC. (

Kyngdon, D.J., E.O. Minot, and K.J. Stafford. Behavioural responses of captive common dolphins Delphinus delphis to a ‘swim-with-dolphin’ programme. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 81:163-170.

Lusseau, D. and M.E.J. Newman. 2004. Identifying the role that animals play in their social networks. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Biology Letters (Supplement 6) 271:S477-S481.

Mazet, J.A.K., T.D. Hunt, and M. H. Ziccardi. 2004. Assessment of the Risk of Zoonotic Disease Transmission to Marine Mammal Workers and the Public: Survey of Occupational Risks. Final Report for Research Agreement Number K005486-01, U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, Davis, California.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 1989. Permit Policies and Procedures for Scientific Research and Public Display under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act: A Discussion Paper. Office of Protected Resources and Habitat Program, Silver Spring, Maryland.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 1990. Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Use of Marine Mammals in Swim-with-the-Dolphin-Programs. Office of Protected Resources, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Oldfield, M. 1988. Threatened mammals affected by human exploitation of the female-offspring bond. Conservation Biology 2:260-274.

Reeves, R.R., B.D. Smith, E.A. Crespo, and G. Notarbartolo di Sciara (compilers). 2003. Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002-2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World’s Cetaceans. IUCN/SSC Cetacean Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, U.K. (http://www.iucn.org/themes/ssc/actionplans/cetaceans/cetaceans.pdf)

Samuels, A. and T.R. Spradlin. 1995. Quantitative behavioral study of bottlenose dolphins in swim-with-dolphin programs in the United States. Marine Mammal Science 11:520-544.

Small, R. and D.P. DeMaster. 1995a. Acclimation to captivity: a quantitative estimate based on survival of bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. Marine Mammal Science 11:510-519.

Small, R. and D.P. DeMaster. 1995b. Survival of five species of captive marine mammals. Marine Mammal Science 11:209-226.

St. Aubin, D.J. and J.R. Geraci. 1988. Capture and handling stress suppresses circulating levels of thyroxine (T4) and Triiodothyronine (T3) in beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas. Physiological Zoology 61:170-175.

Thompson, C.A. and J.R. Geraci. 1986. Cortisol, aldosterone, and leucocytes in the stress response of bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science 43:1010-1016.

Ward, N., A. Moscrop, and C. Carlson. 2001. Elements for the Development of a Marine Mammal Action Plan for the Wider Caribbean: A Review of Marine Mammal Distribution. UNEP (DEC)/CAR IG.20/INF 3.

Wells, R.S. 2003. Dolphin social complexity: Lessons from long-term study and life history. Pp. 32-56 In: F.B.M. de Waal and P.L. Tyack, eds., Animal Social Complexity: Intelligence, Culture, and Individualized Societies. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Woodley, T.H., J.L. Hannah, and D.M. Lavigne. 1997. A comparison of survival rates for captive and free-ranging bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), killer whales (Orcinus orca) and beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). IMMA Technical Report No. 97-02.

Attachment 1: R.R. Reeves statement

A press release issued by Ocean Embassy on 29 January 2007 (“Comprehensive Conservation Program for Dolphins Begins in Panama”) appears to be announcing a major conservation initiative, which we should all welcome and support. However, the content of the statement belies quite a different story.

OEP promises to carry out ‘extensive field research’ on wild dolphins and to provide ‘care for sick and injured animals’. Who could oppose such good intentions? It also promises to establish a ‘dolphin breeding program’ that is ‘essential’, citing the examples of ex-situ conservation efforts with California condors, giant pandas, and golden lion tamarins. This is disingenuous in the extreme. It is an affront to serious conservationists who rightly regard those successful programs as major conservation success stories. Also, it is disappointing to see provisions of the SPAW Protocol invoked in this manner, implying that the dolphin live-capture initiative is perfectly in line with the letter and spirit of that instrument. More disingenuousness.

There is no reason to suppose that dolphins (presumably bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus, although this is not specified in the press release) along the coast of Panama ‘need’ a captive breeding program. In fact, captive breeding of this species is already routine and highly successful in many existing facilities, leading to a voluntary cessation of collection from the wild nearly 20 years ago by some institutions. If OEP wishes to set up a commercial facility with performing dolphins and/or swim-with-the-dolphins offerings, one wonders why they are not attempting to stock it with captive-bred animals that are already available on the North American market. Instead, it appears that OEP plans to begin its ‘extensive field research’ by live-capturing a ‘precautionary quota’s worth’ of local dolphins off Panama, allowing these privileged individuals to ‘experience uncompromised enriching care in a spacious and pristine habitat’. The collections apparently will begin before a population assessment has been completed, which is totally contrary to internationally accepted practice.

OEP’s professed interest in learning about the ‘health’ of wild dolphins, and in turn the ‘condition of the marine environment in which they exist’, sounds good. And engaging Panamanians at all levels (governments to individuals) is indeed vital to conservation. However, the grandiose promise of creating a ‘comprehensive view of environmental and ecosystem health of Panama’s coastal areas’ sounds over-the-top, especially if, as I suspect, the true underlying motive is to create yet another profitable enterprise centered on wild-caught captive dolphins, using concern for ‘ocean health’ and a trumped-up ‘need’ for captive breeding as a smokescreen.

R.R. Reeves
Chairman, IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group
1 February 2007

The Honorable Martín Torrijos Espino
February 7, 2007
Page Eleven

Attachment 2: R.S. Wells statement

I understand that Ocean Embassy Panama plans to collect bottlenose dolphins from the waters of Panama. Based on 37 years of research with dolphins in Florida and elsewhere, I am strongly opposed to the removal of dolphins from the wild, especially in the absence of adequate assessments of the wild populations, including their structure, abundance, vital rates, and factors affecting them, prior to the collections. Since 1970, we have been monitoring five generations of bottlenose dolphins that live in a year-round resident community in Sarasota Bay, Florida. We have found indications that disruption of the community through losses/removals can adversely impact the animals remaining in the wild, through decreased reproductive success and disruptions of the social structure (Wells 2000, 2003).

The Chicago Zoological Society and partner institutions ceased collecting bottlenose dolphins from the wild decades ago in favor of cooperative captive breeding programs involving dolphins already living in zoological parks and aquaria. These programs have been very successful, and they represent much more appropriate efforts toward effective conservation of dolphins than removal from the wild. I would expect more of a new dolphin program in Panama than to implement an out-dated and biologically-unsound program of collection from the wild.

Randall S. Wells, Ph.D.
Conservation Biologist
Chicago Zoological Society
5 February 2007

Literature Cited

Wells, R.S. 2000. Reproduction in wild bottlenose dolphins: Overview of patterns observed during a long-term study. Pp. 57-74 In: D. Duffield and T. Robeck, eds., Bottlenose Dolphin Reproduction Workshop Report. AZA Mar. Mammal Taxon Advisory Group, Silver Spring, MD.

Wells, R.S. 2003. Dolphin social complexity: Lessons from long-term study and life history. Pp. 32-56 In: F.B.M. de Waal and P.L. Tyack, eds., Animal Social Complexity: Intelligence, Culture, and Individualized Societies. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

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