The Maldives tuna industry’s dolphin-safe reputation is under threat after US-based non-profit environmental organisation, Earth Island Institute (EII), launched a campaigns with ECOCARE Maldives against a proposed dolphin lagoon.
The lagoon is an educational and recreational program proposed by famous tennis player Amir Mansoor, involving 6-8 trained dolphins imported from the Caribbean.
EII, which issues the dolphin-safe label to 93 percent of the world’s tuna market – including 14 Maldivian companies – has said it will rescind the label from government-owned canneries should the government approve Mansoor’s program. EII claims to have already warned foreign buyers and distributors of its concerns.
Mansoor and staff accuse EII and ECOCARE of “threatening” the fishing industry, while their opponents maintain that importing dolphins will damage the Maldives’ “Always Natural” image, as well as endanger marine life. Both sides have accused the other of corrupt dealings.
Meanwhile, cannery and government officials are slowly siding with the activists, citing legal and economic reasons.
A November 3, 2011 EII press statement read, “the Maldives tuna industry has adopted a policy to ensure that no dolphins are ever killed in tuna nets.”
“That Dolphin Safe standard is respected all over the world”, Dolphin Safe program Associate Director Mark Berman told Minivan News. “If the Maldives’ government allows live dolphins to be imported into their country, the Dolphin Safe reputation of the Maldives will be jeopardised. Major tuna importing nations will not buy tuna from governments that harm dolphins.”
Senior management officials of Dolphin Lagoon Maldives claim the goal is to provide dolphins born and raised in captivity with a healthy lifestyle, while educating and entertaining the public.
“The proposed lagoon is the largest in the world for the small number of dolphins that will inhabit it,” said a source involved in establishing the lagoon, who requested anonymity. The dolphins would be “taken for a ‘walk’” on a daily basis and allowed to swim away from the group if they so desired. The choice to return to the lagoon after an excursion would be voluntary, the source stated.
The program’s website contends that people are critical to conservation – ”but they will only become engaged in helping to solve the problems if they get to understand something about the problems… through knowing the dolphins.” School programs are also in the works.
“We need something new in tourism because the Chinese don’t want to pay for bars, scuba, and safari,” said Mansoor, who said he believed opposition to the project was “motivated by jealousy”.
EII and ECOCARE meanwhile maintain that “captivity is captivity.”
A letter sent from the lagoon program to EII staff claimed, “Mr Berman is deliberately using the ‘ dolphin safe ‘ label provided by his organisation to the tuna fisheries companies in the Maldives as a tool for his campaign. Confusing the real meaning of the ‘dolphin safe’ label and trying to make people believe that dolphin safe also means that the country has no dolphin program.”
According to the EII website, the companies licensed with the dolphin-safe label must meet the following criteria:
- No intentional chasing, netting or encirclement of dolphins during an entire tuna fishing trip;
- No use of drift gill nets to catch tuna;
- No accidental killing or serious injury to any dolphins during net sets;
- No mixing of dolphin-safe and dolphin-deadly tuna in individual boat wells (for accidental kill of dolphins), or in processing or storage facilities;
- Each trip in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETP) by vessels 400 gross tons and above must have an independent observer on board attesting to the compliance with points (1) through (4) above
Lagoon program officials asked EII staff, “Where is the relationship between having a dolphin lagoon, as proposed for the Maldives, and the purpose these labels are used for? Where does it say in order to have a dolphin-safe label the country can not have captive born dolphin programs? In fact, if they are related, why is the same organisation that is providing these labels to the Maldives still supporting other countries that have dolphins in captivity like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China Portugal, Spain, and most shocking of all, even companies in countries such as Japan, Peru and Brazil which kill dolphins for food?”
Mansoor claimed these and similar questions sent to EII have not been answered. Speaking to Minivan News, Berman pointed out that all companies licensed in the US, Japan and other listed countries are privately operated and “don’t support trade in dolphins.”
Berman added that EII has successfully campaigned against several dolphin programs in the US, including a dolphinarium in South Carolina and dolphin parks at Great America and Six Flags Amusement Park in Texas.
While EII licenses all Maldives’ tuna canneries, only government-owned companies – Felivaru, Koodoo and Maldives Industrial Fishing Corporation (MIFCO) – would be affected by a government decision, Berman said.
Point 12 of the EII licensing form states that a licensed fisheries’ “subsidiaries or affiliates worldwide do not participate in, or profit from, nor is the company connected to companies involved in, whaling operations, dolphin drive fisheries, live capture and or traffic of marine mammals for zoo and aquarium trade.”
The government – which is not itself a company- does not subscribe to an official dolphin-safe policy. However EII would consider its decision to reflect directly on tuna canneries’ dolphin-safe licenses.
“If the government allows the import of dolphins, these companies will violate the dolphin-safe policy,” Berman said, warning that “if I tell Thai Union tomorrow to stop buying tuna from Koodoo, they will cancel their orders.”
Who’s in charge?
The lagoon program has been shuttled around the ministries of Environment, Finance, Fisheries and Tourism, according to Fisheries Minister Ibrahim Didi. It has not yet been approved.
According to Didi, program management did not agree with Cabinet’s assessment of the program as 100 percent tourism, and “it was only by chance that I was at a meeting and found that the program concerned fisheries”.
On January 3, EII’s executive director David Phillips sent an email to Didi urging the government to reject the lagoon program.
Echoing EII’s claim that allowing imported dolphins would open the market for other projects, threatening the indigenous population and even inviting the ‘dark side’ of the dolphin trade – poachers – Didi said “some legal issues have been raised because the program violates Fisheries’ and Environment laws.”
The Maldives Ministry of Fisheries maintains good relations with EII and Mark Berman, State Minister Dr Hussein Rasheed said last week.
However, “the Maldivian government is not a client to the EII and we are considering the needs of the industry and remaining aware of the market,” he said, adding that regardless of the dolphin-safe label, no dolphin has been reported injured or killed during a Maldivian tuna fishing trip.
Rasheed claimed the government would weigh the Maldives’ economic base – tourism and fisheries – against the concept of the Maldives as ‘always natural’.
“Any decision has economic complications – approval of the lagoon program will have a cost, and disapproval will have a cost. We will not compromise the liability of our tuna industry. But then again, we have to move along and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship. This is how society progresses. We must also look at the long term impacts of a decision on our economy and our image in the world. Everything has to be fair,” he explained.
Meanwhile, government canneries are sheepishly stunned.
MIFCO’s Sales and Marketing Director Adley Ismail said the fishery took pride in its dolphin-safe status, but “don’t see the relationship between the tourism industry and our practices.”
“In a sense, we are on [Berman’s] side because we don’t want the label removed,” he said, while Koodoo Fisheries’ Managing Director Abdulla Thasleem noted that without the label the premium on canned tuna would drop.
MIFCO recently entered a joint venture with Thai company Mahachai Marine Products, however Berman said that without the dolphin-safe label it would be forced to sell its shares.
Felivaru’s Head of Production Solah Mohamed put his trust in EII. “In my opinion, a dolphin park is not a good idea – it would indirectly harm the fisherman. If EII is against it we should be too because with their power, EII can do many things,” he said.
ECOCARE Chairman Mohamed Zahir said he would encourage and “pressure” the fisheries, with which Berman met on Monday, to write letters to the government opposing the lagoon.
The origins of ‘dolphin-safe‘
In the late 1980s the world’s three largest tuna companies – Starkist, Bumblebee and Chicken of the Sea – jointly boycotted tuna caught using methods threatening to dolphins, killing off 80 percent of the market between 1988 and 1990. That year, Starkist partnered with EII to promote dolphin safety monitoring in the tuna fishing industry; in late 1990 the Maldives’ only government fishery at the time, MIFCO, signed the dolphin-safe tuna fishing pact.
EII’s dolphin-safe label, one of six such labels, has become a standard adhered to by 90 percent of the tuna fishing industry world-wide. According to Berman, countries that haven’t subscribed to the label, including Mexico and Venezuela, have virtually no market access.
For this reason, however, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruled in September 2011 that American dolphin-safe tuna labels are “overly restrictive” in comparison to international standards and violate free trade agreements with Mexico. The US appealed the decision on January 20, 2011.
Maldives’ centuries-old ‘pole and line’ fishing method is both dolphin-safe and a source of national pride. Zahir argues that Mansoor’s program would violate this tradition.
“We oppose the program because it is against our culture; it would introduce the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin which is an alien species and could transmit diseases to marine life; it doesn’t support education; and it’s contrary to the Maldives’ ‘Always Natural’ brand,” he said, noting that “it would be very easy for EII to buy an ad to display all over the world that reads ‘Always Natural?’ instead.”
The veterinarian handling the dolphins slotted for import, Thomas H. Reidarson , said the dolphins would undergo standard tests as well as extensive screening “to insure that none are capable of transmitting diseases to wild dolphins with whom they might interact.” Program management added that the tourism industry – which draws increasing numbers of speed boats, sea planes, divers and waste – is threatening the Maldives’ dolphins’ natural habitat.
Zahir dismissed the claims as “an excuse to have captive dolphins” while Berman retorted that any health certificates are “likely bought”.
“We can take this to the international media, but we don’t want to give the country a bad name”, Zahir explained, adding that “the fisherman’s union has said it would be no problem to mobilise fisherman to march in the streets of Male’ if the label is withdrawn.”
Berman warned that distributors and foreign partners of the Maldives’ government fisheries have already begun looking for new sources following conversations with EII. “It’s a premium product, and the companies are acting fast to guarantee their business interests,” he said.
Even if private canneries retain their dolphin-safe labels, Berman estimates they would be unable to meet the huge consumer demand displaced onto their operations once government canneries close their doors. “Felivaru and Koodoo have already said they would have to close without the label,” he said.
Stuck at Odds
While EII and ECOCARE are strongly opposed to the lagoon program, they have yet to have any direct dialogue.
“We don’t care who is behind it, we don’t have to go and ask why or how, we aren’t journalists who have to do a check and balance of what is right or wrong,” Zahir said. “We only respond to the government gazette.”
Correspondence obtained by Minivan News indicates that EII staff did not respond to a majority of emails from lagoon program staff, who challenged the EII’s threat. Berman explained, “our business is with the government and the fishing industry.”
“There is no common ground in a dialogue with dolphin traders. It’s like talking to an orangutan – what’s the point?” he said, adding that invitations to debate with various captive dolphin programs in the US have never received a response.
Berman and ECOCARE did attend the web launch of Dolphin Lagoon Maldives near the Tsunami Memorial on Monday night. Berman later told Minivan News that he attended the event as a “peaceful observer” but was “shoved, threatened and a bit manhandled” by protesters at the launch.
Alleging that the aggressors were “hired thugs”, Berman said the behavior was “typical of the captive dolphin industry, they resort to violence and intimidation. Our policy is if it’s too dangerous for us to work, we pull out – with the dolphin-safe label,” he added.
Mansoor, who said he did not witness the incident, was aware of an aggressive verbal exchange “but there was no physical confrontation.” He claimed the activists had been arguing their point of view with bystanders at the launch. “They came to create a scene. I gave clear instructions to my staff not to make a scene because I suspected they would want one to give us bad publicity,” he said.
According to Mansoor the Cabinet has approved his program, however he is working with the President’s Office against EII’s demands. He argued that EII’s claim about its contract “is all crap” and is being used to “threaten” the fisheries.
Correction: Previously, this article stated that dolphins would be free to leave the lagoon and are recalled from excursions by a whistle call. In fact, dolphins would be free to roam during daily excursions after which they return voluntarily.