27 Jul St Thomas Coral World Dolphin Plans an Environmental, Ethical and Economic Disaster
Featured image: Caribbean Buzz Helicopters Coral World Construction (centre left) and Sargassum covered Beach (centre right)
Not since the mind control experimentation of the LSD fuelled Dr. John Lilly in the 60’s, has St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands (USVI) held dolphins in captivity.
During his decades long quest to understand, communicate with and master the dolphins superior brain, even Lilly himself it seems, came to the understanding that dolphins belong in the wild, free to live their lives without human domination.
“I shut my lab because I didn’t want to continue to run a concentration camp for my friends, the dolphins” he said.
Fast forward to 2018, and despite strong public opposition both locally and internationally and for a myriad of environmental and ethical reasons, the island of St Thomas is once again looking to the obsolescent practice of keeping dolphins in captivity. This time there is no scientific quest, no aspiration to further our knowledge or our understanding of these intelligent, captivating beings. This time the simple fact is Coral World’s owners and the USVI tourism industry need to make money and introducing dolphin petting, they hope, will be their saving grace.
In 2012 Coral World Ocean Park, an aquarium on the island of St Thomas announced that it intended to construct a captive dolphin interaction and breeding facility.
Gertrude Prior, General Manager of the Aquarium, said at that time, “People want to be really close to animals,” and “being a spectator at a small aquarium is not going to cut it.”
Coral World had been struggling financially for years due to, among other things, the devastating hurricanes that cross the Atlantic basin every year.
Hurricane Hugo destroyed the aquarium in 1989 and it was impacted again by Marilyn and Louis in 1995.
In 2017 Coral World was hit twice more by Hurricanes Irma and Maria and suffered an estimated $2 million in physical damage. This damage resulted in its closure for months and forced the park to release more than 200 of its marine animals into the sea.
Hurricane Irma’s impact on 94 animals in 6 facilities mostly across the Caribbean, demonstrated the absurdity of keeping dolphins in captivity in the Hurricane belt. Six captive dolphins from Cayo Guillermo were airlifted out of Cuba, Duck Key dolphins were evacuated to Orlando and Dolphin Discovery Tortola was completely inundated by storm surge.
Although knowing that these natural disasters will inevitably impact their aquarium again, the owners of Coral World still decided that introducing dolphins to their hurricane ravaged aquarium would be a good way to make their facility more financially viable. Astonishingly, US authorities issued the facility its construction permits in March 2018 whilst St Thomas was still in recovery.
Ms Prior has confirmed that Coral World will obtain its dolphins from another Caribbean captive dolphin facility but despite public pressure, has yet to divulge who will be supplying her with the animals.
The permit issued by The Department of the Army states “The facility will house up to 10 dolphins on a permanent basis and up to 18 animals on a temporary basis once operations (including a captive breeding program) are fully underway. Animals produced through the captive breeding program will be sent to other facilities once they are mature enough”.
In a St John Source news report, Lee Keller, Curator at Coral World said of the controversial plan, “We’ll build a natural and normal social group with these dolphins.” The report also said that the plans included a maternity area where pregnant dolphins will give birth and an area in the pen that will have a liner that can filter water if for some reason the water in Water Bay becomes contaminated.
Regarding the threat of hurricanes to the dolphins, Prior was quoted in the report as saying, “we’ll be able to lift dolphins out of the water in case of a hurricane,” and Keller added “in that case the dolphins would remain inside a building in transport boxes until the hurricane passes. They should be able to ride it out without any problem.”
Despite Prior’s and Keller’s assertions, there is certainly nothing natural or normal about keeping dolphins in a commercially driven captive environment where every aspect of their existence will be managed in order that they entertain thousands of people for tourist dollars for the rest of their lives. It also beggars belief that they, or anyone supplying this aquarium, would think it not only acceptable to put dolphins (and paying tourists) in a bay where the water is already known to be contaminated by effluent runoff, but also consider it a reasonable plan to put dolphins in boxes in the hopes that they will ride out a category 5 storm.
Sometimes there is human sewage floating in Water Bay.
The dolphins will be swimming in an area already polluted, and their faeces will further contaminate the water
Fiona Stuart – Vi Dolphin Voices
Hurricanes, human effluent and cetacean welfare aside, the construction process involved in the Coral World dolphinarium and introduction of a concentrated group of large marine mammals for commercial entertainment and breeding purposes in an already choking bay, presents an extensive list of other serious environmental concerns, along with a complex maze of regulatory inconsistencies raised by some of the most highly regarded conservation groups from around the world.
Mary Ann Lucking , Director of the award winning Caribbean coral reef conservation organisation, CORALations, has joined cetacean protectionists calling for authorities to halt the project.
“It seems obvious the waters of this bay cannot support increased impacts from confined, antibiotic-laden marine mammals, and will likely spell the end for critically endangered corals and the listed critical habitat of the bay; this offends Coral Word’s important educational mission.” said Lucking.
Lucking went on to explain that “Naomi Rose, Ph.D. of the Animal Welfare Institute did an exceptional job listing concerns in the agency record, which included potential impacts to the health of the dolphins and visitors as well as the presence of endangered sea turtle species and IUCN red listed corals in the bay, some of which are even found within the footprint of the project.“
CORALations’ recent FOIA requests resulted in the release of a document from NMFS-NOAA in which all 122 pages were redacted. “We have never seen this before” said Lucking and “as the pen construction continues, we now have to follow up and investigate with this agency.”
“These critical habitat waters are three dimensional habitat that will be shared between the cages and the bay. Current cumulative impacts to the water quality of this bay include land-based runoff and now the eutrophication of massive mats of floating sargassum, trapped by an obvious lack of circulation and suffocating many aquatic benthic plants and animals. These water quality issues alone are very complex, requiring funding to address, and still awaiting meaningful local and federal agency response” Lucking concluded.
Fiona Stuart, founder of VI Dolphin Voices, a group that has opposed the Coral World plan since 2012 says, “It is heartbreaking that our US Virgin Island community justifies this animal abuse because it is a way to increase revenues to the islands.” To separate dolphins, who are highly intelligent, sentient beings, from their families and natural environments for financial advancement and entertainment is a shameful example to set for the children here.”
Ms. Stuart and her group have followed the permitting process closely, they have filed objections at local and federal level and testified in front of the USVI Economic Development Committee.
“Coral World has pinned its financial hopes on the introduction of captive animals in the past. They said they would have to close if they didn’t get sea lions; Coral World’s business plan for the sea lions didn’t work and now they’re doing the same all over again but this time with Dolphins” she said.
“The construction has begun but it’s not too late for an intervention and we are respectfully asking that Commissioner Beverley Nicholson-Doty of the USVI Department of Tourism step in and stop the introduction of captive dolphins to the island of St Thomas.”
Photograph: St Thomas Locals say “”
(WCA), the World’s largest partnership and leading authority on cetacean protection and wild cetacean tourism, supports VIDolphinVoices in their call for a halt to the development of the Coral World dolphinarium—and also encourages Commissioner Nicholson-Doty to intervene.
In a letter sent to the USVI Department of Tourism this month, the WCA asked the Commissioner to consider the ongoing issue of poor water quality in the Water Bay area where the animals will be housed, citing effluent run off, enterococci outbreaks as well as the effects on marine life from the current Sargassum seaweed explosion. It addresses the serious health and welfare concerns these things will present to introduced cetaceans and tourist swimmers alike.
Dylan Walker, CEO to the WCA said, “Our letter also urges the commissioner to intervene in recognition that long term investment in this outdated form of human entertainment coupled with a travel industry move away from captive animal interactions and towards sustainable wild cetacean watching, is precarious at best.”
The WCA presented to the Commissioner a dossier of recent travel industry announcements that included Thomas Cook, STA, Intrepid, Trip Advisor and Virgin; each demonstrates an understanding that the travelling public are now searching for more Eco-friendly and ethical alternatives for their tourist dollar.
“The travel industry is responding to this evolution by discouraging the creation of new dolphinaria and developing animals in tourism policies that work towards the phase out of captive cetacean breeding programs, as well as a move towards retirement of performance animals (that cannot be released) to genuine seaside sanctuaries.
The Virgin Islands have many natural attributes that already bring millions of tourists to the area, including the opportunity to see and experience whales and dolphins in their natural environment during kayak tours, boat tours and dive trips.
‘The travel industry is increasingly looking to these wild experiences with nature as an opportunity to add value to package tours, and the Virgin Islands can maximise this potential in a responsible ways’ said Walker.
Fiona Stuart says, “The Coral World ‘attraction’ is proposed purely for commercial gain and teaches people that exploitation of animals is acceptable for the sake of turning a profit. The Virgin Islands government should take a leadership role and prevent this dolphin-swim expansion from happening. We ask that Commissioner Nicholson-Doty demonstrates a progressiveness in line with the Travel and Tourism Industry and work towards ending practices that we know are detrimental to animals, the marine environment and tourists within the Virgin Islands.
It’s what the local and travelling public wants and it’s the ethical thing to do.”
Author: Sharyn Taylor. WCA Co-Chair Campaigns Working Group
Editors: Jane Robinson. WCA Partner, Melbourne Dolphin
Patricia Sullivan. WCA Global Council Chair.
Animal Welfare Institute Submission 2014
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Public Consultation Tracking System