Protecting Spinner Dolphins
Holo Holo Charters has voluntarily participated in NOAA’s Dolphin SMART program for over a decade. We feel it’s our privilege and responsibility to protect the marine life and fragile ecosystems we enjoy everyday. The Dolphin SMART program is in place to promote responsible stewardship of wild dolphins in coastal waterways.
Unfortunately, not all tour operators think like we do and the disruptive behavior of vessels has impacted the quality of life for many marine animals. NOAA has now issued new regulations to better protect the Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins who frequent our waters.
Why is NOAA Fisheries establishing these regulations for Hawaiian spinner dolphins?
Unauthorized take of marine mammals, including harassment of spinner dolphins, is prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). However, despite prohibitions, guidelines, outreach, and stewardship efforts currently in place, close interactions between humans and spinner dolphins continue to occur in waters around Hawai‘i. These interactions are especially prevalent during Hawaiian spinner dolphin essential daytime habitats. Based on the best available scientific information we have determined that additional regulations are required to protect Hawaiian spinner dolphins from activities that result in take, including harassment or other forms of disturbance as currently defined by statute and regulation.
What are essential daytime habitats and why is undisturbed daytime rest important for Hawaiian spinner dolphins?
Spinner dolphins have a very specific behavior pattern of hunting at night and resting during the day. During the day, spinner dolphins use areas close to shore that have optimal environmental conditions for spinner dolphins to socialize, nurture their young, shelter from predators, and rest in preparation for nightly foraging. These specific areas are considered spinner dolphin essential daytime habitats. Spinner dolphins disturbed during this rest period may engage in avoidance or distress behaviors, and lack of consistent, undisturbed resting periods can reduce the amount of energy available to them for foraging and caring for their young. The rate of chronic exposure of Hawaiian spinner dolphins in their daytime essential habitat may place resident stocks at risk through habitat displacement or reduced fitness, as seen in other dolphin populations.
Can’t a dolphin just swim away if it does not want to be near people or vessels?
Having to swim away from people or vessels closely approaching Hawaiian spinner dolphins interrupts their rest, keeps them in a state of vigilance, and forces the dolphins to expend energy to increase their swimming speed and/or change direction. This increase in their energetic expenditures for purposes of avoidance may lead to decreased energy needed for other important behaviors, such as foraging and nurturing their young and affect the fitness of individual dolphins, and their ability to forage as a group. Further, leaving their preferred resting habitat altogether can lead to a greater risk of predation, and may involve greater energetic demands because they may need to travel farther distances at night to reach their feeding grounds.
Why can’t a person swim with, approach, or remain near a Hawaiian spinner dolphin?
There is a growing body of scientific evidence documenting the effects of dolphin-directed activities on spinner dolphins, especially activities that involve close approaches by humans. Peer-reviewed scientific literature documents disturbance of individual spinner dolphins as well as changes to spinner dolphin group behavioral patterns and effects of swimmers on dolphins’ daily resting behavioral patterns. Because main Hawaiian Island resident spinner dolphins rest in nearshore areas during the day, concentrated daily viewing and interactions put pressure on individual dolphins and groups over extended periods of time. The chronic nature of these problems in Hawai‘i and observed changes to spinner dolphin behavioral patterns over time are a cause for concern. Reported behavioral changes observed in scientific studies may not be obvious to an observer who is not systematically observing the behavioral patterns that support spinner dolphins throughout the day. However, many independent scientists studying varying geographic areas have reported changes in spinner dolphin behavior and reduced time spent engaging in resting behavior when in the presence of human activity. This chronic disturbance to the resident spinner dolphins could ultimately lead to habitat displacement and/or long-term impacts on their individual fitness.
What if a Hawaiian spinner dolphin approaches a person or vessel?
Any person who inadvertently comes within 50 yards (45.7 meters) of a Hawaiian spinner dolphin or is approached by a spinner dolphin, must make no effort to engage or pursue the animal, and take immediate steps to move away. Any vessel that is underway or adrift and is approached by a Hawaiian spinner dolphin may continue normal navigation as long as it makes no effort to engage or pursue the animal. Vessels that are anchored and approached by spinner dolphins are not required to move away, provided they make no effort to engage or pursue the animal(s)