John's Letter to the Maui News, 08/26/01

The Maui News

Known by scientists and enthusiasts for years, yet not fully comprehended by mainstream society, cetaceans (dolphins and whales) are highly intelligent beings, with larger brains and perhaps a more complex language than human beings. It is in this spirit that we applaud Council Member Jo Anne Johnson's statement that "Cetaceans are clearly deserving of legal recognition and protection in the county code." (The Maui News, 8/22/01 Bill would ban exhibiting of dolphins and whales")

However, we do not agree that her suggested legislation, as described by your article, is a good idea. It is in fact exactly the wrong kind of legislation we'd like to see, as it further restricts human-cetacean interaction; something that is urgently needed today. Certainly, the spirit of such a bill grows from a prevalent conservationist viewpoint that oceanariums are part of the enemy when it comes to saving dolphins and whales. They are seen as capitalist, exploitive endeavors that are imprisoning cetaceans. Thus some people want to close or inhibit them.

While the hearts of those with this viewpoint are absolutely in the right place, the fact is that thousands of dolphins are still being killed every single day in the wild--a daily death total larger than the grand total of captive dolphins for the entirety of recorded history. These deaths occur at the hands of humans--active deaths by those in the fishing industry still using speedboats, nets, and bombs, and passive deaths resulting from general pollution and habitat disruption (not to mention LFAS!) Even before the Marine Mammal Protection Act was stripped of most of its teeth by a conservative US Congress in the last few years, tuna fishing interests were still able to usurp most of the controls by a variety of means including death threats to government observers unless they recorded "acceptable" dolphin kill totals.

To save cetaceans it is painfully clear that we must save the humans, change their minds--on a grand scale. Oceanariums are one of the few practical ways that we can carry out this change. Books and videos are no substitute for the experience of direct human dolphin interaction. Humans and dolphins being together in close proximity is in fact "the point" of having an oceanarium. We need millions of humans to become educated about cetaceans and understand how special they are. Those who have encountered dolphins know how they were changed by them and know what I'm talking about. Furthermore, millions of people meeting dolphins is not possible in the wild, in fact it would be a disaster for the dolphins, through additional habitat destruction and disruption.

The forces against the cetaceans are very powerful, and incomprehensibly wealthy. Conservationist efforts, and cetacean academic research is horribly under-funded. And just ask Sea Life Park on Oahu how much it costs to maintain a facility that specializes in corrosive salt water. Many of the people working for conservation, research, and yes, oceanariums are there on labors of love. Oceanariums aren't the big money capitalists they are often made out to be.

If divided, conservationists, oceanariums, scientists, government, and other thinking people concerned about cetacea, have no chance against the true enemies--who are plenty happy that we stay divided. Legislation regarding cetacea should focus rather on creating strict standards for the care, research, and interaction of captive dolphins. But please don't limit the public's access--educating them is the most important part.

Dr. John C. Lilly