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Swimming with Hawaii’s dolphins may be banned under a federal proposal

Federal officials on Wednesday proposed rules that would prohibit approaching or swimming within 50 yards of Hawaiian spinner dolphins. The National Marine Fisheries Service said that daily human interaction diminishes the dolphins’ rest and creates stress for the animals.

Contact with dolphins is a huge draw for the tourism industry in Hawaii. These rules would impact tour group practices, such as approaching the animals by boat and snorkeling with them.

Spinner dolphins forage for food at night and routinely come inshore during the day to rest, socialize and nurture their young. This is when tour groups interact with the dolphins.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Nancy Sweatt, owner of Dolphin Journeys and a United States Coast Guard captain, on the proposed federal ban. “When the dolphins don’t want to be with us, they won’t participate.”

Sweatt believes that education rather than regulation is the correct path forward and that the ban would greatly harm the dolphin tourism business in Hawaii.

The proposal noted that “chronic disturbance to the MHI’s [Main Hawaiian Islands] resident spinner dolphins could ultimately lead to habitat displacement and/or long term impacts to their individual fitness.”

The potential ban would affect all waters within two nautical miles of the Hawaiian Islands and certain areas located between the islands of Lanai, Maui and Kahoolawe.

There are several exceptions to the proposed rules including any person inadvertently coming within 50 yards of a spinner dolphin, or a situation where staying within 50 yards of the animal is necessary to avoid an imminent or serious threat.

With the proposed rule comes a 60-day period in which the NOAA Fisheries will accept public comments, which could affect the proposal. The final rule will likely be decided within a year, according to an NOAA document.

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