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Exposing the Dolphin Trade in the Solomon Islands

Captured Dolphins Meant for Singapore Park Languish in Holding Pens in The Philippines

Tourists visit the Solomon Islands for the sun, the sand and the sea — a tropical picture of perfection. Favored by scuba divers and adventurous travelers, the South Pacific archipelago has also seen its share of history, from being a protectorate of the United Kingdom for over a century, to witnessing the ravages of World War II, to finally becoming an independent nation in 1976. Through the ages of political turmoil, an indigenous tribal society has managed to endure.

Photo by Kate TomlinsonSome Solomon Island tribes use small boats and noise to drive dolphins ashore.

A small number of tribes here developed a tradition of hunting dolphins using small boats and noise to drive them to shore. People on the island of Malaita prize certain species of dolphins for their teeth, since they are used as currency, as well as in bridal dowries. To a lesser extent, dolphin meat is also valued. These hunts are very similar to the drive fishery hunts in Japan.  Over 2000 dolphins per year were killed.  However, on April 8, 2010, the Fanalei and Walende tribes of the Solomon Islands signed a memorandum of understanding with Earth Island Institute to end the dolphin hunts in exchange for community grants to develop alternatives to these hunts. 

Incidentally, the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins — the local version of the popular aquarium dolphins most of us are familiar with — were never sought by the indigenous hunters. Their meat, the locals believe, is poor quality and their teeth aren’t valuable. However, that changed relatively recently when Canadian Christopher Porter, who used to be one of the biggest dolphin exporters in the world, decided to exploit the dolphin hunts. (Porter gave up the dolphin-export business in 2009 following the killing of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by Tilikum, a killer whale he’d trained, and the after watching the documentary The Cove.)

In 2003, Porter offered fishermen cash to capture live bottlenose dolphins to sell to a Mexican aquarium. When word got out local fishermen, out to make some quick cash, captured over 200 dolphins that they kept bringing in over in small canoes thinking that the order was for dozens. In the end only 28 dolphins were exported to Mexico, in defiance of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that protects wildlife against over-exploitation, and to prevent international trade from threatening species.

At the time, the Solomon Islands was not a party to CITES, and therefore unable to be penalized.

Photo by Randolph Croft The bottlenose dolphins were never sought by the indigenous hunters until
dolphin traders came on the scene.

From December 2008 to January 2009 a total of 18 dolphins were exported from the Solomon Islands to the Philippines to be trained before being re-exported to the Resorts World Sentosa in Singapore. Nine more were sent there by December 2009. But the Singapore facility is not yet complete and the dolphins are still languishing in the Philippines. As far was we know, at least two dolphins have already died. Join us and help “Save the World’s Saddest Dolphins”.

The Solomon Islands dolphins do have one local champion: Earth Island Institute staff Lawrence Makili has been bravely speaking out against their capture for years, despite constant pressure from the dolphin traders and their associates. I recently visited the islands with Makili to see how Earth Island’s deal with the Fanalei and Walende tribes was progressing and I’m happy to report that the villagers have stuck to their agreement and no dolphins have been killed. 

But our work isn’t complete. The Solomon Islands continue to be a major source of captive dolphins for dolphin traffickers. We have to keep the fight going.

Mark Berman is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project and Director of Dolphin Safe Tuna Monitoring Program. Earth Island Institute is fiscal sponsor of both these projects.

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