Dolphin capture foes turn up the heat

30 04 2007

With a Dichter & Neira poll commissioned by La Prensa showing more than 80 percent of Panamanians opposed to the proposed capture of wild dolphins by Ocean Embassy, several different elements of those against the idea are turning up the pressure on several fronts, while those in favor are moving in a couple of different directions as well.

On the streets, we see a growing movement, mainly middle class and predominantly female, with Catholic animal welfare groups apparently mobilizing more people than environmentalist organizations. The photos taken here, of perhaps 1,000 dolphin capture foes who gathered on March 29 along both sides of Calle 50 near Via Brasil, are representative of this growing movement.

Meanwhile, mayors, representantes and factions of the ruling PRD – Partido Popular coalition are slugging it out in a contest of political endorsements and condemnations. In favor are the mayor of San Carlos and the representantes of that municipality and of Aguadulce in Cocle province. Oppposed are the mayors of Panama City and Bocas del Toro, the latter proposed to be the venue of some of the dolphin captures. The youth wing of the ruling coalition’s junior partner Partido Popular has denounced the plan, and a move by San Carlos representantes for an endorsement of the Ocean Embassy proposal by the Panama Provincial Council — composed of all representantes from all corregimientos in all municipalities in Panama province — was defeated.

On the legal front, what is likely to be but one of several court challenges to the Ocean Embassy proposal was filed on April 1 before the Supreme Court’s Third Bench by a lawyer for the Fundacion Humanitas, the originally Catholic but now broader-based animal welfare group. That lawsuit asserts a legal theory of animal rights, which the Ocean Embassy people scorn and Panamanian courts have never recognized. It also challenges the constitutionality of the new Panamanian Aquatic Resources Authority’s jurisdiction to grant exceptions to the nation’s environmental statutes which, given our Civil Code system of law, would be a much more likely hook for judges to use if they feel inclined to stop the project.



Now that’s an eye-catching, if weird, argument

Evolving arguments

On the Ocean Embassy side, there is an increasing estimate of the number of jobs that they say would be created — now they’re saying about 1,200 — and a characterization of opponents as animal rights extremists who would have their ideologies get in the way of people in the San Carlos area having opportunities for decent jobs. There is also the claim that the kids of Panamanians who can’t afford to travel to Florida to visit Sea World deserve an opportunity to become educated and fascinated by close contact with dolphins.


But some of the opponents are also pushing class conflict buttons, particularly in Bocas. Small-time boat owners who derive some of their income from taking tourists out to see the dolphins in the wild are portraying Ocean Embassy as a foreign corporation coming to strip Panama of a natural resource that happens to be their living.


To what extent Ocean Embassy intends to deplete the local dolphin population and for what purpose is the subject of conflicting claims. The company’s application to the Panamanian government talks of taking 80 dolphins over five years. Opponents say that this number is way more than the proposed “swim with the dolphins” pen in San Carlos could handle and is thus surely a back door way toward the capture of wild dolphins for export abroad, at a world price that runs between $100,000 and $120,000 per animal. But Ocean Embassy’s Ted N. Turner flatly denies that his company has any intention to export dolphins.


Then there is the question of what counts and how — is it 80 dolphins that survive capture and confinement, or 80 dolphins total, whether they live or not?


Many dolphins, up to half, don’t survive capture. The National Marine Fisheries Service in the United States (where wild dolphin captures have not been allowed since 1993) has noted that the “animals removed from the wild for permanent maintenance in captivity often represent only a proportion of the total take during a live capture operation,” and the Chicago Zoological Society’s conservation biologist Dr. Randall S. Wells argues that a long-term study he has been conducting since 1970 in Sarasota Bay, Florida has yielded “indications that disruption of the community through losses/removals can adversely impact the animals remaining in the wild, through decreased reproductive success and disruptions of the social structure.” But dolphin park advocates claim that because they are protected from starvation and predators, the animals live as long or longer in captivity as in the wild. The industry statistics, however, exclude those dolphins who die during or shortly after capture.

From the Humane Society of the United States come other warnings, that “swim with the dolphins” programs are dangerous to both humans and dolphins because every now and then a dolphin that doesn’t care to play will become aggressive, because there are certain people who out of ignorance or malice are mean to animals and because there are diseases that dolphins and humans can give to one another. Such particular pros and cons of Ocean Embassy’s plan to build a shallow water pen off of San Carlos where people and dolphins will swim together have yet to take center stage in the debate here.

Nor has the challenge to Ocean Embassy’s claim of a scientific purpose to its project been as strident from Panamanian critics as from opponents abroad. At the Calle 50 protest some signs and banners pointed out that the study of dolphin behavior in captivity is an unsound way to learn about how dolphins live in the wild, but there were few comments about the credentials of Ocean Embassy’s team to conduct a proper study of wild dolphin populations on Panama’s Atlantic and Pacific sides as promised. Environmentalist leader and University of Panama biology professor Ariel Rodríguez was one of the exceptions, but even as he scorned the Ocean Embassy team’s credentials he pointed out that “really, we have a serious ethical issue here” rather than much of a scientific controversy.

In the mainstream media, El Panama America appears to be the single news organization with an editorial slant in favor of the Ocean Embassy proposal. In one of the pro-Ocean Embassy columns appearing in that daily, Carmen M. Arias V. played up the scientific and educational benefits that proponents say the project would bring to Panama: “Which is more important, knowledge and the transmission of knowledge, or lack of knowledge and lack of communication?” she rhetorically asked. But blogger Ramón H. Benjamín M. dismissed such contentions, concluding that their makers “want us to remain — profitably — in the clutches of fools.”



The beach toy industry has made money off of these protests


Yes, it’s about dolphins. But more and more, these protests are about a generalized sense that everything in Panama is for sale and that institutions that are supposed to protect the public and its resources have been subverted by narrow special interests


The religious animal welfare groups, in this case the Fundacion San Francisco de Asis — are at the heart of Ocean Embassy’s broad and growing but not yet truly massive opposition


It makes sense that the middle class opponents would choose Calle 50 for their protest

Ocean Embassy’s Ted N. Turner accuses opposing groups of using images of cute dolphins for cynical fundraising purposes — but that sort of claim is likely to cut both ways

Is it that dolphins are cuter and smarter than cows?


Only a few protesters are directly confronting Ocean Embassy about their scientific claims

To read Ocean Embassy’s formal proposal to the government, which includes the credentials of its team members in the appendices, click here.

The Panama News




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