Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XVI No. 4 - October 2007

Can CITES Survive the Solomon Islands?

By William Rossiter, CSI President

The CITES Management Authority (MA) sleepily answered the three AM phone call, but became wide awake and thoroughly confused when he heard: "What do we do with these dolphins?" "What dolphins?" "The ten dolphins that just came in on a plane from the Solomon Islands." "Solomon who?" "Look, they can't stay here at the airport; what do we do?" The latest chapter in the international sale of Solomon Islands (S.I.) dolphins for captive display may begin this way even before you read this. This sleepy man may be the only person in the world with the official authority to head off a diplomatic and treaty fiasco and a destructive trade in captive display dolphins, but will he know his options, and will he do the right thing?

Like most nations, his country has no import permit requirements for protected species like dolphins, and until the plane landed only the captive display facility that ordered them knew the dolphins were coming. Surprise also was part of the plan first tried in 2003, with a shipment of 28 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins from the S.I. to Mexico. Compounded by rich and powerful influence on the highest levels of government, confusion and denial among officials and scientists, and blatant avoidance of the law, Mexico's reputation suffered. Most of those dolphins are now dead. To review how Mexico allowed itself to be abused read the CSI website-archived October 2003 and January 2005 "Whales Alive!"

While governments and officials in both countries have been changed, most of the international entrepreneurs and managers of the infamous capture and trade company "Marine Exports Ltd" are the same. To understand why the Solomons remain vulnerable to sleazy international exploitation, review their history at: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2799.htm. Ravaged by a world war and several violent upheavals, in some ways they have not emerged even into the last century. By defying widespread condemnation, the shipments of dolphins ready for export from the S.I. will set them back even more.

Throughout this ugly issue, Marine Exports Ltd has made many promises to the S.I., such as higher fees paid to the government and locals, and one million S.I. dollars for any orca brought in to the pens. Another alarming promise was to begin buying spinner and spotted dolphins next year, perhaps from communities that slaughter cetaceans in January, March and April for teeth used in bridal dowries, and meat. For this whole groups are driven ashore by boats with pipes in the water that are hit with stones. Those dead dolphins are valued at $US35. In the past year 1200 bottlenose, spinner, and spotted dolphins were killed, as well as 32 pilot whales. For Fanalei, one of these drive-slaughter communities, the company also promises a tourist resort. Because of the civil war and feudal violence no one outside the locals knows if the numbers of "available" dolphins have decreased or changed, but it has been said they will kill this way because they always have, until they cannot find any more. It has also been said that locals are seeking alternatives to this killing, and CSI and other organizations are exploring the feasibility for community projects to reach this goal. We have a long, long way to go. Any suggestions?

Immediately after the news of captures broke in June, CSI and several other organizations coordinated efforts to stop the trade. Twenty dolphins survived the initial captures, as reported by witnesses that risked being beaten to get close enough to the goon-guarded pens to check. There may be 50 now, with new purchases from local fishermen bringing in dolphins from the surrounding islands offsetting apparent deaths. Captive dolphin care and maintenance is unregulated and unmonitored in the Solomons, and the only goal is to sell the survivors. Violence empowers the security and secrecy around Marine Exports Ltd; we do not expect to know when the first group of dolphins will be exported.

From the Prime Minister down, the S.I. government appears to support the exports, cheered on by the evasive salesmanship of Minister of Fisheries Leni. This official position is odd because, with great fanfare, the S.I. became a Party to CITES in June even as it presented CITES with this crisis. In a muted effort to settle the crisis, the CITES Secretariat soon recommended against the exports, as they did in 2003, and responded to an August review of the Solomon Islands "Non-Detriment Finding" (NDF) concerning this trade. CSI assumes CITES was as critical of this NDF as they were in 2003; nothing has changed. No one outside the parties has been allowed to see either the NDF or the communications.

The crisis is that the S.I. have challenged the fundamental purpose of the NDF, a backbone of CITES. The NDF is supposed to demonstrate with scientific data that a specific trade in a CITES-listed species will not be detrimental to the species or population's survival. Because nothing has changed since 2003, any new S.I. NDF is still nothing more than a sham; there still has been no adequate scientific assessment of dolphin population abundance and distribution in national waters. That is the opinion of the world's experts who have become proactive members of our widening coalition to stop this trade. No matter, the S.I. continues to ignore the Secretariat's recommendation against exports.

CSI and other organizations have focused on destinations, still too sensitive to include here. Our goal is to ensure that importing officials understand what is at stake, and what their options are. With remarkably strong language the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group (CSG) has recommended against allowing imports of S.I. dolphins. The CITES Secretariat, which can only recommend against imports, not prohibit them, may follow the lead of the CSG. When nations behave properly such a recommendation is more than enough, but the S.I. don't seem to care.

So only national CITES Authorities can actually refuse or confiscate the imported dolphins. And they may depend upon an NDF they do not realize is worthless. Only if an importing nation's CITES Authority questions the NDF should something have to be supplied. But they may be pressured by many levels of government not to question the NDF. And there is no way to prevent the exporting nation from ignoring that request, or giving answers unsubstantiated by any real data. Despite its vital role in proper international trade the NDF does not even have to accompany a shipment; it can be just a verbal statement by someone appointed by the government. Even to challenge that someone's qualifications may start a diplomatic flap. In the end it comes down to weak enforcement and overriding diplomatic concerns about status quo. And so the NDF of a defiant nation like the S.I. may be nothing more than a statement of unsubstantiated assertions, a dare to the international community to complain.

Created to protect vulnerable species, the weak NDF policy reduces CITES to serving members' interests. Because nations must at least pretend there is trust between nations, a challenge to an NDF, even one as vacuous as the S.I. NDF, breaks a prime rule, declaring that the exporting nation's statement cannot be trusted. To prevent this, an enormous bureaucracy jumps in to protect the relations between nations. They almost always win: It is better to allow death and destruction to happen than to imply mistrust of another nation.

The NDF was not created to be voided by these weaknesses. Or was it? From the wider perspective, the only way to fix the NDF is for a Party, a member nation, to bring the issue to the Secretariat and start the revision process. A hesitant effort to make this happen was squelched at the recent Conference of Parties. Apparently it is not in the national interest of any Party to CITES to give substance to the NDF; they all must want the option to misuse it themselves. And so the dolphins may be exported, and their import permitted, despite laws, treaties, science, and logic.

And that brings us back to the sleepy CITES Management Authority above. Now at the airport, he's surrounded by the people who accompanied the ten crates of dolphins, representatives from the purchasing display facility, and perhaps a few officials primed to benefit from the trade. He's being berated about how long the dolphins were in the air, and how they need to get to a tank and be fed; they have suffered enough. The pressure is intense but respectful, as everyone needs his signature to authorize the import.

There now are two possible scenarios:

In one the official will succumb to the din, sign the paper, and go home to bed, unaware he has embarrassed his nation, rekindled a very real threat to CITES itself, and jump-started the dream of Marine Exports Ltd to become a major supplier of captive display dolphins worldwide.

Or the official will recognize the travesty and know his options. Acknowledging that it would be both inhumane and economically infeasible to demand the return the dolphins to the seller, halfway around the world, and attuned to the immediate needs of the dolphins, he will confiscate them. Why would CSI not work to have the dolphin import refused? Think about it: Whatever the rules say, no one would be willing to pay for the immediate transport of the dolphins back to the Solomon Islands, and if they were shipped back they would suffer and probably die enroute. Nothing but suffering and death awaits them in the S.I. In the biological sense they were essentially dead when they were captured.

The dolphins are suffering now, and their survival depends on how they are cared for. We accept that it is likely they will be dumped in the tanks of the buyer's facility. But the dolphins now are the property of the nation, and although they can be displayed, the buyer does not own them. As bad as this is for the dolphins, it will send the message to the profiteers waiting to see the outcome; how can they expect to sell dolphins and make lots of money if prospective buyers know their dolphins are likely to be confiscated? You know, of course, that none of this is about dolphin populations or suffering in captivity. This is all about money. Jeopardize the money flow and the export threat will die faster than the captured dolphins.

This article could be rewritten daily, even if many details must be left out for tactical reasons. CSI is hopeful that we can report in January that, even more important than the failure of Marine Exports Ltd, this event finally prompted CITES to begin to fix the NDF.

Captive Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins

Captive Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins

Captive Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, Honiara,
Solomon Islands, July 2007, courtesy of WSPA

Taiwan's Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins will vanish as the Baiji did, and as the vaquita might, unless human activities can be mitigated. This clear alarm came from the "Second International Workshop on the Conservation and Research Needs of the Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin Sousa chinensis in the waters of western Taiwan", held in early September. Perhaps 100 Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins still survive in the Eastern Taiwan Strait, but the relentless pressures from reduced river flow into estuaries, habitat loss, entanglement in fishing gear, industrial and municipal pollutant discharges, and underwater noise leave no doubt that it is just a matter of time. Still, some, like the Taiwan Cetacean Society, follow the government line that there is no crisis.

Humpback dolphins, or the prey of their prey of their prey, are integral to a system of life that includes humans, a system that humans need to survive. Even people who believe that only humans are important, or that everything is here for humans, should see the clear evidence that we need it all to survive, that everything is related and interactive, that you cannot destroy a piece of the puzzle without leaving a gap. One of CSI's goals is to educate people to the reality of our dependence upon the very things our societies are destroying. We can't say it enough: what are we leaving our grandchildren?

So will Taiwan do anything significant to save the humpback dolphin? To find out, or to speak out, see http://taiwansousa.blogspot.com/2007/09/taiwan-humpback-dolphin-workshop-press.html. Besides a detailed summary of the workshop you will find a link to voice your concern to the Taiwanese Government.

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