The days of tourists swimming with dolphins off Hawaiian shores may soon come to an end.
Federal officials from the National Marine Fisheries Service have proposed new rules that would prohibit human interaction with Hawaiian spinner dolphins to within 50 yards. The species, active at night foraging for food in deep waters, returns during the day to shallows near shore to rest, nurtures their young, and participates in other social behaviors. The guidelines are meant to protect the dolphins during this critical downtime, as well as shield them from potentially stressful interactions with tourism groups.
"At some locations, up to 13 tour boats have been observed jockeying for position on a single dolphin group, with up to 60 snorkelers in the water," the officials shared in their report. "Apart from commercial tour operations, people also swim, kayak, or paddle into essential daytime habitats to seek interactions with the dolphins."
Speaking with the Associated Press, National Marine Fisheries Service official Ann Garett said that all of these outside parties can contribute to a reduction of fitness over time and an increase in chronic stress for the dolphins. “That’s what we’re concerned about," she added.
The agency had originally considered enforcing a 100-yard restriction to remain consistent with one currently governing interactions with humpback whales, but decided to halve the distance so as not to "diminish both the experience of dolphin watching and opportunities to participate in dolphin watching."
If passed, the dolphin restriction would apply anywhere in waters within two nautical miles of the Hawaiian Islands and in the waters between the islands of Lanai, Maui and Kahoolawe. While some dolphin excursion operators have railed against the proposed rules, others say such regulations are long overdue.
“People chase the dolphins with the selfie sticks,” Victor Lozano, owner of Dolphin Excursions in Oahu, told the Guardian. “You go on safari – you don’t go out to the lion and try to pet it.”
NOAA Fisheries is accepting public comment for 60 days on the proposed regulations. A decision on the matter will likely be decided within the next 12 months. You can see an example of just how close some tourists get to these dolphins in the video below.