Steer clear of spinners

LIHUE — While the federal government is seeking to ban swimming with Hawaii spinner dolphins, some local groups and individuals aren’t too thrilled with the plan.

The idea has been in the works since 2005 and the subject was breached at a meeting Wednesday on Kauai.

“We’re all here to talk about the problem we’re starting to see,” said Jean Higgins of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. “Because these animals are so easy to access during the day people are taking advantage of that to get close to a group of spinner dolphins.”

It was one of several meetings across the islands, hosted by the NOAA Fisheries Department, where the entity aired out the proposed rules on dolphin interaction.

About 40 people were in attendance and many had questions about the potential law.

NOAA Fisheries is proposing a ban within 2 nautical miles from shore that would keep humans at least 50 yards away from Hawaiian spinner dolphins — and that includes swimming, snorkeling, and boating.

The rules were proposed because dolphins are being harassed by tourists unloading from boats, mainly on the Big Island, into the sleeping habitat of the cetaceans.

But not everyone thinks it’s necessary to ban swimming with the mammals.

“You can’t swim with them without their cooperation,” said Randy Roe, a resident of Wailua who is an avid snorkeler, kayaker and diver. “I’ve been in the water with them and swam with them and if I thought I was harming them in any way, I wouldn’t do it.”

Dolphins feed primarily at night, according to Higgins, and sleep through the morning and into the late afternoon.

The large number of people in the water disturbs their rest and is against the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act law against the harassment of marine mammals, according to NOAA.

“These animals go offshore over night, they forge as a group and they’re feeding all night long,” said Higgins. “After the night is through they return to nearshore waters to rest during the day.”

Populations of dolphins change their residency patterns potentially due to the disturbances created by humans in their habitat, Higgins said, and NOAA is seeing the animals “use avoidance behavior to get away from people and boats.”

“The purpose is to clarify for people the types of activities that cause disturbance to spinner dolphins,” Higgins said. “We’re hoping to reduce chronic disturbance to spinner dolphins.”

Members of the public also questioned the practicality of the potential law.

“If a dolphin comes up while I’m swimming, what am I going to do, swim away,” Roe asked. “I think ‘corralling’ is the key world. I’m totally against chasing them down and herding them into an area, but I’ve actually never seen that happen.”

Exceptions built into the rules include vessels and swimmers that are approached by the dolphins, transit to and from harbors and ports, when the safety of a person or vessel is at stake, permitted activities and government activities.

Alternatives being considered to the proposed law are a 100-yard regulation on swimming with and approaching dolphins and mandatory time-area closures where the mammals rest during the day.

The biggest problem is on Oahu and on the Big Island, according to Higgins, but it isn’t as prevalent on Kauai.

Kilauea resident Felicia Cowden suggested increased education efforts instead of more laws, especially on Kauai because there “aren’t really any problematic areas” on the island.

“Do we have to run around and look for a problem that we’re not really experiencing,” Cowden asked. “When I think about money, it might be a good thing to make a video and put the financial effort into educating the visitors and residents.”

The public has the opportunity to comment on the NOAA draft environmental impact statement on the potential regulation until Oct. 23 and those comments can be made electronically at www.regulations.gov/document?D=NOAA-2005-0226-0002 .

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