A new federal rule will require people to maintain a 50-yard distance from spinner dolphins in Hawaii in an effort to better protect them from human disturbances.
Swimming with dolphins has risen in popularity over the years, along with a growing number of commercial tours and therapy retreats in the state, officials noted. These human activities, however, interfere with the ability of dolphins that forage at night to peacefully rest in shallow, nearshore bays during the day.
The new rule, which goes into effect Oct. 28, prohibits swimming with, approaching or remaining within 50 yards or 150 feet of spinner dolphins in Hawaii waters.
It applies to any person or vessel, including boats, canoes, stand-up paddleboards or drones, within 2 nautical miles from shore in the main Hawaiian Islands, and in designated waters bound by Lanai, Maui and Kahoolawe.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration finalized the rule, which falls under the existing Marine Mammal Protection Act, on Tuesday after community hearings and a public commentary period.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, harassment of spinner dolphins is already prohibited, according to Kevin Brindock, deputy assistant regional administrator of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, but it became clear that further restrictions were needed.
“Under this, disturbance of spinner dolphins was prohibited, but not specific enough to meet the level of disturbances that were occurring in Hawaii,” said Brindock. “Some of the bays the dolphins used for resting were experiencing a high level of disturbance on a regular, daily basis.”
In addition, Brindock said, there is a growing body of scientific evidence documenting the harmful effects of this human disturbance over extended periods of time on the natural behavioral patterns of spinner dolphins.
“Given the scientific evidence and body of information that was available,” he said, “it was determined these actions were needed to protect dolphins from take (harassment) under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”
Spinner dolphins, named so because they are often seen leaping and spinning out of the water, have slender beaks, or rostrums, and can be identified by their unique dorsal fins.
They forage for small fish, shrimp and squid at night, then seek more open, sandy-bottom areas closer to shore to rest and nurture their young during the day.
Under NOAA’s viewing guidelines a distance of 50 yards — or about half a football field – is recommended for dolphins and porpoises.
With the new rule, maintaining this distance would be a regulatory requirement enforceable by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and partners such as state Department of Land and Natural Resources officials, with punitive fines for violations.
The establishment of federal rules to protect spinner dolphins in Hawaii has been in the works since at least 2005. NOAA’s proposed 50-yard rule was published in 2016 for public comment, with several rounds of public meetings and a few changes due to public input.
There are now eight, rather than six, exceptions to the rule, which include a person who inadvertently comes within 50 yards of a Hawaiian spinner dolphin, as long as they do not try to engage or pursue the animal, and immediately take steps to move away.
The same goes for a vessels that are in transit or anchored, and approached by a spinner dolphin.
The number of commercial operators engaged in wild dolphin viewing has grown dramatically in Hawaii in recent years, according to NOAA, along with organized retreats that are centered around dolphin encounters, dolphin-assisted therapy and dolphin-associated spiritual practices.
In addition, many people, residents and visitors alike, venture out on their own to view and interact with spinner dolphins.
In 2014 scientists from Duke University said a combination of federal regulations and community-based conservation measures was urgently needed to protect resting dolphins from humans in shallow bays.
Researchers surveyed Makako and Kealakekua bays on Hawaii island over a five-year period and observed as many as 13 boats and 60 swimmers jockeying around a pod of dolphins at once, and in some cases witnessed people grabbing and riding dolphins or putting their dogs in the water to chase after them.
Last year a study by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Duke and York University found that the dolphin- swim tourism industry in Hawaii brings in an estimated $102 million annually.
The study was based on 2013 revenues generated from two popular dolphin spots: Waianae and Kailua-Kona.
NOAA is proposing another rule under the Marine Mammal Protection Act that would close off five selected sites at Kealakekua, Honaunau, Kauhako and Makako bays on Hawaii island and La Perouse Bay on Maui from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily to protect spinner dolphins resting in these habitats.
Public comments on the proposed rule for mandatory “time-area closures” are welcome at regulations.gov under a search for NOAA-NMFS-2021-0091 through Dec. 27.
New federal rule under Marine Mammal Protection Act, effective Oct. 28:
>> No swimming with, approaching or remaining within 50 yards of spinner dolphins.
>> Rule applies 2 nautical miles from shore in the main Hawaiian Islands and in designated waters bound by Lanai, Maui and Kahoolawe.
>> Rule applies to any person or vessel, including boats, canoes, stand-up paddelboards and drones.
>> Additionally, interception of a dolphin by placing a vessel, person or other object in the path of a spinner dolphin so that it approaches within 50 yards is prohibited.
>> Eight exceptions are listed, including people who inadvertently come within 50 yards of a spinner dolphin or are approached by one, as long as they make no effort to engage or pursue the animal and take immediate steps to move away from it.
Source: NOAA Fisheries
By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Terms of Service. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. Report comments if you believe they do not follow our guidelines.
Having trouble with comments? Learn more here.