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New Zealand Bans Swimming with Bottlenose Dolphins in the Bay of Islands

The World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) welcomes the recent announcement by the Department of Conservation (DOC) in New Zealand to ban swimming with bottlenose dolphins in the Bay of Islands. This popular tourist attraction is situated on New Zealand’s North Island. Other conditions introduced limit the time vessels can spend with the dolphins. The decision comes after research indicates a 66% decline in this population, with only 19 dolphins now returning regularly to the area. The WCA hopes that this will highlight the vital importance of long-term studies in identifying the impact of tourism on wildlife and to scientifically inform management decisions. 

The discovery of the negative impact of tourism on wild whales and dolphins, unfortunately, is nothing new. Scientific studies have shown that both boat-based whale and dolphin watching, and swimming with whales and dolphins, can cause stress and disturbance to wild populations. This can manifest in short term behaviour changes and, if the disturbance persists, can even lead to animals leaving an area or population declines as has been seen in the Bay of Islands.  

Bottlenose dolphin breaches in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

One of the WCA’s primary missions is to reduce the impact of the tourism industry on cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). In 2018, the WCA launched the Global Best Practice Guidance for Responsible Whale and Dolphin Watching which details the standards required to ensure tourism activities have minimal disturbance to cetacean groups and individuals. Included in these guidelines are some of the toughest standards for swimming with wild whales and dolphins, an often controversial and arguably more invasive form of tourism. The WCA believes that if this activity is to continue, these high standards must be met, and that careful management of the industry needs to be in place. Without this, the sustainability of the industry must be questioned. 

With growing evidence of the negative impacts of the tourism industry, the guidelines set out to ensure that whale and dolphin watching activities provide an incredible experience for tourists whilst simultaneously maintaining a safe environment for whales and dolphins with minimal disturbance. They also aim to ensure that whale and dolphin watching activities actively help to preserve cetacean habitat and lives through marine conservation initiatives, community education projects, and research.    

Swimming with bottlenose dolphin. Copyright: Chantal Pagel

There are many positive outcomes of the tourism industry as well. Author of the guidelines, Sophie Lewis, says: “Tourism constitutes 10% of the global economy with significant impacts on society and the environment. It has the potential to benefit cetaceans and our oceans by investing in sustainable, high quality experiences”.

The Global Best Practice Guidance aims for a compromise to be achieved to allow both the positive attributes of tourism to be gained, but also a reduction in the negative impacts of the industry.

Due to the gravity of the situation for the bottlenose dolphins  in the Bay of Islands, the WCA believes the right decisions have been made by the Department of Conservation and is delighted to see the necessary steps being taken to preserve this population. In other regions, where swim-with activities are still permitted, it is important for tourism operators  to ensure they are carrying out their practices with the least amount of disturbance to the wildlife involved. Guidance on this can be acquired by accessing the Global Best Practice Guidance for Responsible Whale and Dolphin Watching, free to download from https://worldcetaceanalliance.org/certification/global-guidelines/

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