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Limit on dolphins' human contact paid off


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POSTED: Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Placing a limit on human contact with spinner dolphins in the Red Sea had a positive effect on maintaining the number of the marine mammals, an Italian scientist reports, carrying implications for marine mammal pods around Hawaii.

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara said the population of spinner dolphins stabilized and slightly increased when the reef at Samadai in the Red Sea was partially closed to human activity in 2004.

Notarbartolo di Sciara, who conducted a two-year study, was among the speakers at an international conference on Maui, sponsored by some federal agencies, including officials who are considering regulating spinner dolphin tours in Hawaii.

The First International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas began yesterday at the Grand Wailea Resort, Hotel & Spa.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is drafting an environmental impact statement, looking at various alternatives in protecting spinner dolphins in Hawaii bays where they rest during the day before swimming out to feed at night.

Spinner dolphins are not listed as an endangered or threatened species, but are protected from harassment under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Federal officials in Hawaii estimate there are about 3,300 in the Pacific islands region.

Federal rules protecting spinner dolphins from harassment are difficult to enforce because of differences in interpretation, said Lisa Van Atta, assistant regional administrator for protected resources with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Van Atta said an alternative could be to close places identified as resting areas for spinner dolphins during certain times.

Van Atta said there are a growing number of vessels and kayaks in the bays with people who increasingly want to swim in the water close to the dolphins.

“;We're just really concerned that it's going to have problems that are going to impact on the population,”; she said.

She said federal officials are gathering information and will be holding public hearings in Hawaii once the draft of the environmental impact statement is completed.

Notarbartolo di Sciara said about 75 percent of a reef area at Samadai in the Red Sea has been closed to tours, and a small section has been set aside for swimming visitors with a certified guide.

He said the group has been limited to 10 people with a $15 fee per person.

He said the closure allows the spinner dolphins, the same species as those in Hawaii, to rest during the early part of the day and to swim out of Samadai in the afternoon.

Roberta Goodman, owner of Wild Dolphins Swim Hawaii in West Hawaii, said federal officials should exercise caution in imposing rules that would adversely affect ocean businesses during these economic hard times.

Goodman said the tours help to develop an appreciation for protecting dolphins.

“;It's a phenomenal experience,”; she said.