From communicable diseases to poaching to being harassed, captured and effectively tortured at marine mammal parks, the plight of dolphins is severe.
It is remarkable that people should slaughter, enslave and abuse a species that so many scientists consider to be deserving of “human rights”. Or perhaps it’s not so remarkable considering how human beings treat each other.
There are several ethical issues connected to the use of dolphins as tourist attractions. First, those kept in marine parks or “dolphinariums” are captured in the wild, ripped from their communities (pods) and transported to the parks. This is a severely traumatic experience for the dolphins and often results in their deaths. Once there, these cetaceans, which are used to swimming for 100 miles (160 km) per day, are forced to live tiny enclosures. They are then exposed to loud noises like audience applause, which echo around their small concrete tanks. We cannot imagine how this affects their sensitive sonar.
What we can imagine is that, despite their apparent “smiles”, dolphins suffer terribly in marine parks and sometimes they react. The larger species of dolphins have been involved in several human deaths at aquatic parks. Take the case of the orca Tilikum, who despite killing 3 humans, is still used in SeaWorld’s live shows. This only goes to show that for marine parks, profits are more important than the lives of dolphins and humans alike.
And then there is dolphin tourism in the wild, which we see as plainly more ethical. Things are not so simple, however. There have been studies on the negative effects of tourist boats on bottlenose dolphins and that diving can interfere with dolphin mating, leading to population decline.
Spinner dolphins, which need to sleep during the day, are particularly vulnerable to tourism. They are even purposefully harassed in Guam for touristic purposes.
From Radio Australia:
[The harassment of dolphins] has been going on for some time but has probably picked up in recent days with more tourism interest. Spinner dolphins are being purposely cut off and harassed so that they’re more agitated and thus they spin, so that people in tour groups may have a better show.
–National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Special Agent Charles Raterman
For more on the ethics of dolphin tourism read this piece on Travel Wire Asia.
Like much of the natural world dolphins also often suffer as unintended casualties of human development. In Australia, a recent spate of dolphin deaths has been attributed to the morbillivirus, which is similar to human measles. Australian dolphin experts believe that warming seas, sometimes a result of climate change, supress the immunity of dolphins, making them more susceptible to the virus. A mass die off of fish has also been linked to the warmer water temperatures, which encourage algal blooms. These algal blooms can interfere with the fish’s breathing and eventually result in death.
From the Guardian:
I just think that the water temperatures and the oceanographic conditions that have been shown in the last three to four months is pretty telling. And if the prediction is that changing climate patterns are going to leave warm waters and algae blooms sitting there for months, then it’s going to affect the natural aquatic environment that these animals live in.
–University of Adelaide veterinary diagnostic laboratory operational manager Dr Stephen Pyecroft
Humans use dolphins for fun, for food and even military tools. Even in the wild they cannot escape our negative influence.