Writing Letters About Discovery Bay Captive Dolphin Facility – But Are the Dolphins Arriving Next Week?

I am copying and pasting below two letters regarding the planned captive dolphin facility at Puerto Seco Beach in Discovery Bay – a designated fish sanctuary – for the benefit of the cruise ship industry. Many of these arguments against such a project (which is not, by the way, “ecotourism” or “sustainable tourism” just because it includes wild animals!) have already been aired, but there are some new perspectives here, too (have we thought about the many risks associated with sea pens, the impact of human noise, the trauma of capture and removal from dolphin family members?) Many thanks to Jamaican conservationist and marine wildlife artist Guy Harvey and to the UK-based Whale and Dolphin Conservation, (WDC) who wrote these letters – and to all those who have supported and continue to support this campaign against the dolphin prison.

Please sign the online petition here. It is now at over 20,000 signatures! If you are opposed to this facility, add your voice!

Support the campaign by joining the Facebook group (Save Discovery Bay). And follow on Twitter @DefendDBay

Hashtags: #SaveOurBay  #NoCaptiveDolphinsInOurBay

I have just heard that the dolphins may be arriving as early as next week. But we must continue to register our opposition!

Footnote: By the way, as I have noted before (years ago!) Jamaica is NOT a signatory to the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol of the Cartagena Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment in the Wider Caribbean Region (mentioned in WDC’s letter, below). SPAW, which focuses on the protection of marine biodiversity, entered into force in 2000 and its Secretariat (at the UN Environment Programme) is in Kingston.

UNEP’s map of the current status of ratification of the SPAW Protocol. NB Honduras has recently done so.

Why has Jamaica not signed this important Protocol? Perhaps the Government of Jamaica’s Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation could tell us. I have asked before but received no definitive answer.

Letter from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, UK

16th November 2018

Dear Prime Minister,

I am writing on behalf of Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), an international non-government organisation dedicated to the protection of whales, dolphins and their habitats, regarding the proposed development of a facility displaying captive dolphins at Puerto Seco Beach in Discovery Bay. Based on well-recognised concerns about the impact on dolphin welfare, conservation and local environmental impact, we respectfully encourage you to withdraw your approval of the request to include captive dolphins in the development of Puerto Seco Beach.

The practice of exhibiting dolphins to the public has become increasingly controversial. In recent years, the ethics of capturing and maintaining dolphins in captivity have increasingly come into question. Many people, including scientific experts, have expressed grave concerns about the treatment and exploitation of individuals in captive facilities and called into question their educational and scientific value.

Dolphinariums, even when based on a sea pen construction design, are often environmentally damaging and may not be compatible with the designation of Discovery Bay as a Fish Sanctuary. We hope that you will consider our concerns outlined within this letter.

Wild Dolphin Populations and Ecosystems

 While the new facility at Puerto Seco Beach may be stocked with already-captive or captive-born dolphins, any expansion of the dolphin display industry through the construction of new dolphinariums increases the demand for captures from the wild.

The demand for wild dolphin captures does more than harm the individual captured – it can threaten dolphin populations and the marine ecosystem (Reeves et al., 2003). The capture of even a few individuals can result in the death or injury of many more dolphins since the capture activities involve intensive harassment of a group or groups. Individuals may become entangled in the capture nets and suffocate, or suffer fatal stress-related conditions associated with the trauma of capture. In addition, captures from the wild can negatively impact already depleted dolphin populations by removing breeding (or otherwise important) members from the group.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the United States has acknowledged that “The animals removed from the wild for permanent maintenance in captivity often represent only a proportion of the total take [‘take’ being defined under U.S. law as killing, capturing, injuring, or harassing] during a live capture operation” (NMFS 1989, p. 33). In addition, social networks in these highly social species can be disrupted when key individuals are removed, whether through natural mortality or as a result of hunting or capture operations (Lusseau & Newman, 2004; Wells, 2003; Williams & Lusseau, 2006).

Capture and transport are inarguably stressful and dangerous for dolphins. Physiological indicators of stress associated with capture and captivity include elevated stress hormones (Curry 1999; Schmitt et al., 2010; St. Aubin & Geraci, 1988; Thompson & Geraci, 1986) and impaired cell function (Noda et al., 2007). Small and DeMaster (1995a) found that mortality rates of captured bottlenose dolphins increase six-fold immediately after capture and do not drop down to ‘normal’ levels for up to 35-45 days. In addition, dolphins face this elevated mortality risk every time they are transported, even after long periods in captivity. In short, they never become accustomed to transport, despite improved transport methods.

Environmental Impacts

Dolphins produce a great deal of waste – if the tidal flow is inadequate at the enclosure location, this waste can accumulate around and through environments such as coral reefs, causing abnormal levels of algal growth, which suffocates and kills corals. Biodiversity on such reefs decreases substantially – a study by Goreau (2003) suggests that this negative impact on reefs near dolphin pens has already occurred in Cozumel, Mexico. In addition, the detritus from decomposing, uneaten fish (as well as faecal matter and waste from associated tourist infrastructure, such as toilets) can have a significant impact on nearby marine ecosystems. Dredging and other environmental disruption to create sea pens can also contribute to the further deterioration of the coastal environment.

Dangers to Humans in Swim-With-The-Dolphin Encounters

Swim-with-the-dolphin programmes pose a danger to human participants. Dolphins carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans (and vice versa) (Geraci & Ridgway, 1991; Mazet et al., 2004). Furthermore, they are wild animals and are unpredictable, even when trained. It is not uncommon for people to become injured from swimming with captive dolphins (NMFS, 1990). Even trainers with extensive experience have been seriously injured by the dolphins with whom they work (Defran & Pryor, 1980; Parsons & Rose, 2018). Most participants and government officials are unaware of the injuries people incur when swimming with captive dolphins, as the injuries are generally not reported. Such injuries have included broken bones, internal injuries, and serious wounds.

Dolphin Welfare and Survivorship

The welfare implications for the dolphins involved in these programmes cannot be overstated. We believe that it is impossible to accommodate the mental, physical and social needs of dolphins in captivity and that confinement is detrimental to normal life history parameters. Dolphins are wide-ranging by nature, spending much of their lives at significant depths below the surface, socializing with group members. We believe that their confinement in small, shallow tanks and artificial lagoons is inherently inhumane, stressful, and can alter natural behaviour, which can result in aggression and illness, and potentially even premature death.

Scientific evidence indicates that dolphins in captivity suffer mental and physical stress, which is revealed in aggression between themselves and towards humans, boredom, and a lower life expectancy and higher infant mortality than in the wild (Maas, 2000). Handling, restraint, confinement, transport, social disruption, isolation and/or crowding, exhaustion, unfamiliar diets, injury, potential exposure to pathogens and other aversive stimuli can all lead to a reduction in life expectancy and the ability to reproduce, grow or fend off diseases (Maas, 2000). Despite captive breeding programmes, dolphins continue to be taken from wild populations to supply the demand created by the continued expansion of the industry and to compensate for premature deaths in captivity.

Risks Associated with Sea Pens

Specifically, in regards to sea pens, the lack of environmental control in these seaside enclosures may make them inadequate and poorly suited for the maintenance of dolphins. For example, water temperature cannot be controlled in pens, which may force dolphins to remain in shallow water with excessive exposure to the sun, resulting in unnaturally and sometimes dangerously high water temperatures.

As noted above regarding impacts on nearby reefs, water quality often cannot be adequately controlled in pens, even when pumps or other similar water movement devices are installed. Captive dolphins can be forced to remain in stagnant, shallow water adjacent to human activity that may contain considerably higher concentrations of marine contaminants than they would encounter in the wild. Such exposure to marine pollution can lead to illness and death.

Exposure to loud sounds – airborne and underwater – can stress dolphins. The sensitive hearing of dolphins is well-established and numerous studies, many on-going, are documenting the harmful effects that anthropogenic noise can have on them (see, for example, Marine Mammal Commission, 2007). Sound travels very well through water and even airborne (e.g., aircraft, music) sounds can penetrate the air-water interface and be heard by captive animals. When dolphins cannot remove themselves from prolonged, loud sounds, physiological stress and damage can result (see, for example, Wright et al., 2007).

Facilities in areas with hurricanes and typhoons are at additional risk. A land-based facility in the state of Mississippi, USA was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and several animals, including eight dolphins, were washed out to sea and injured. Therefore, safety for the dolphins is not necessarily enhanced by moving a facility from the sea to land, a common contingency plan for sea pen facilities.

Violation of the SPAW Protocol

We believe these activities undermine the SPAW Protocol of the Cartagena Convention which governs the protection of marine biodiversity in the Region. All whales and dolphins are afforded absolute protection under this convention, including the prohibition on disturbance, taking, possession, and commercial trade in these species.


True ecotourism has minimal costs to the environment and maximum benefits for the local community. In contrast, the construction of a dolphin facility is a high-impact endeavour, often requiring substantial environmental disruption. While some argue that these tourist attractions will benefit local residents, the development of modern dolphinariums generally requires non-local expertise, meaning that the best-paying jobs will for the most part benefit only non-nationals.


The public display of whales and dolphins is declining in popularity in many parts of the world. Several countries have prohibited the public display of whales and dolphins altogether, including Costa Rica, Chile, Croatia, Hungary and India, among others [Note: Antigua has also rejected a proposal from Dolphin Cove].

We hope that the information in this letter can contribute to the recognition that the expansion of dolphinariums, involving the acquisition of dolphins either from the wild or captive breeding, is harmful not only to the dolphins involved but also to marine ecosystems. We respectfully request that your government withdraws approval for the development of a captive dolphin facility in Discovery Bay.

Thank you for your consideration of our views on this important matter and please let us know if we can provide you with further information.


Cathy Williamson

Policy Manager

Whale and Dolphin Conservation


Curry, B.E. 1999. Stress in mammals: the potential influence of fishery-induced stress on dolphins in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFSC-260

Defran, R. H. and K. Pryor. 1980. The behavior and training of cetaceans in captivity. Pages 319-364 in L. Herman (ed.). Cetacean Behavior: Mechanisms and Functions. John Wiley and Sons, New York.

Geraci, J.R. and S.H. Ridgway. 1991. On disease transmission between cetaceans and humans. Marine Mammal Science 7:191-193.

Goreau, T.J. 2003. Dolphin enclosures and algae distributions at Chankanaab, Cozumel: observations and recommendations. Report of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, Cambridge, Massachusetts, available at: http://www.globalcoral.org/Dolphin%20enclosures%20and%20algae%20distributions%20at%20Chankanaab,%20Co.htm

Lusseau, D. and M.E.J. Newman. 2004. Identifying the role that animals play in their social networks. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, Biology Letters (Supplement 6) 271:S477-S481.

Maas, B. 2000. Prepared and Shipped: A Multidisciplinary Review of the Effects of Capture, Handling, Housing and Transport on Morbidity and Mortality. A Report for the RSPCA, Horsham, UK. 55 pp.

Marine Mammal Commission. 2007. Marine Mammals and Noise: A Sound Approach to Research and Management. Washington, D.C., available at: http://www.mmc.gov/reports/workshop/pdf/fullsoundreport.pdf.

Mazet, J.A.K., T.D. Hunt, and M. H. Ziccardi. 2004. Assessment of the Risk of Zoonotic Disease Transmission to Marine Mammal Workers and the Public: Survey of Occupational Risks. Final Report for Research Agreement Number K005486-01, U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, Davis, California.

NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service). 1989. Permit Policies and Procedures for Scientific Research and Public Display under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act: A Discussion Paper. Office of Protected Resources and Habitat Program, Silver Spring, Maryland.

NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service). 1990. Final Environmental Impact Statement on the Use of Marine Mammals in Swim-with-the-Dolphin-Programs. Office of Protected Resources, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Noda K., H. Akiyoshi, M. Aoki, T. Shimada, and F. Ohashi. 2007. Relationship between transportation stress and polymorphonuclear cell functions of bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus. The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science: 69:379-83.

Parsons, E. C. M., & Rose, N. A. (2018). The Blackfish Effect: Corporate and Policy Change in the Face of Shifting Public Opinion on Captive Cetaceans. Tourism in Marine Environments, 13(2), 73-83.

Reeves, R.R., B.D. Smith, E.A. Crespo, and G. Notarbartolo di Sciara (compilers). 2003. Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002-2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World’s Cetaceans. IUCN/SSC Cetacean Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, U.K., available at: http://app.iucn.org/dbtw-wpd/edocs/2003-009.pdf

Schmitt, T.L., D.J. St. Aubin, A.M. Schaefer, and J.L. Dunn. 2010. Baseline, diurnal variations, and stress-induced changes of stress hormones in three captive beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas. Marine Mammal Science 26: 635-647.

Small, R. and D.P. DeMaster. 1995. Acclimation to captivity: a quantitative estimate based on survival of bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions. Marine Mammal Science 11:510-519.

St. Aubin, D.J. and J.R. Geraci. 1988. Capture and handling stress suppresses circulating levels of thyroxine (T4) and Triiodothyronine (T3) in beluga whales, Delphinapterus leucas. Physiological Zoology 61:170-175.

Thompson, C.A. and J.R. Geraci. 1986. Cortisol, aldosterone, and leucocytes in the stress response of bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science 43:1010-1016.

Wells, R.S. 2003. Dolphin social complexity: Lessons from long-term study and life history. Pp. 32-56 In: F.B.M. de Waal and P.L. Tyack, eds., Animal Social Complexity: Intelligence, Culture, and Individualized Societies. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Williams, R. and D. Lusseau. 2006. A killer whale social network is vulnerable to targeted removals. Biology Letters, doi:10.1098/rsbl.2006.0510.

Wright, A.J., N. Aguilar S., A.L. Baldwin, M. Bateson, C.M. Beale, C. Clark, T. Deak, E.F. Edwards, A. Fernández, A. Godinho, L.T. Hatch, A. Kakuschke, D. Lusseau, D. Martineau, L.M. Romero, L.S. Weilgart, B.A. Wintle, G. Notarbartolo-di-Sciara, V. Martin. 2007. Anthropogenic noise as a stressor in animals: A multidisciplinary perspective. International Journal of Comparative Psychology 20: 250-273


Jamaican marine wildlife artist and conservationist Guy Harvey. (Photo: alertdiver.com)

Here is the letter from Guy Harvey, which the Jamaica Gleaner published today:

We Have A Responsibility To Maintain The Biodiversity Of The Planet

There are several dolphin interaction facilities already in Jamaica. Why more?

The risk this activity places on an already overexploited Discovery Bay is very serious. Discovery Bay is already heavily contaminated due to decades of bauxite dust, (I know this from all the work I did out of DBML in 1979-82), cesspit seepage, road washings, plastic waste, overfishing and population growth. Added to all these negative influences, the enclosed natural topography of Discovery Bay limits natural circulation and flushing of water. There is some fresh water upwelling but this is not sufficient to keep the bay clear of pollution. Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory (DBML) should have heaps of data on this collected over many years since the 1980s.

Now the addition of more food waste and animal waste from the DIF will negatively affect water quality, clarity, coral and seagrass recovery as you have indicated. Trap fishing all around the island has severely reduced the population of fish grazers; parrot fish, surgeonfish and tangs. Which is why the fish sanctuary was set up in the first place.

Over-nutrification causes algal blooms and without the grazers, algal growth will continue unchecked. End result is a desert like the bottom of Kingston Harbour.

We have seen this happen in so many places in the Caribbean you would have thought that developers and regulators would know the difference between right and wrong. There is so much scientific information out there now about what activities are sustainable and what are not and how to take better care of the marine environment from which they all derive their livelihood. They should listen to people like Peter Gayle!  [Peter Gayle is the Principal Scientific Officer at the Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory].

While I was in Ocho Rios a couple of weeks ago I spent hours snorkelling in the new White River Fish Sanctuary. I was heartened to see so many juvenile parrot fish, doctor fish etc, and even a few snappers. The key here is the good management in place and constant enforcement by the local fishermen who initiated the sanctuary. Education of the local population, particularly the school children, is an integral part of the long term recovery process. However, I was disheartened to hear reports of spear fishermen operating at night in this sanctuary and threatening the wardens!

It is our collective responsibility to conserve the marine environment and to maintain the biodiversity of the planet.


The sign is already up…




2 thoughts on “Writing Letters About Discovery Bay Captive Dolphin Facility – But Are the Dolphins Arriving Next Week?

  1. Discovery Bay is unique in Jamaica, here is no other Bay like it. It also contains one of our most iconic beaches, Puerto Seco. If this small are is not worth preserving then I should like to know where is? We MUST protect the natural assets that we have, every single one is important.


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