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St Lucia government may have to rethink dolphin park plan
Published on May 12, 2017 Email To Friend    Print Version

Following the latest moves by the French Environment Minister, it’s just a matter of time before dolphin parks across the Caribbean are forced to change how they treat sea animals captured to entertain humans

By Earl Bousquet

CASTRIES, St Lucia -- The government of Saint Lucia may be having second thoughts about establishment of a dolphin park on Pigeon Island, the island’s most popular national landmark.

That’s according to the island’s tourism minister, who spoke just days after France took steps that will eventually close such parks across the republic and all its territories, including the Caribbean.

The Saint Lucia government’s plans to open a dolphin park on the offshore island joined to the mainland by a causeway attracted the condemnation of many there from as early as last year.

But opposition mounted earlier this month, including from the powerful Catholic Church, when the government confirmed it had eliminated the annual subvention for the Saint Lucia National Trust (SLNT), to which Pigeon Island is officially entrusted.

But apart from the widespread and growing opposition since Prime Minister Allen Chastanet’s confirmation of the subvention cut during his budget address on May 9, his government’s plans faced another unexpected hurdle.

France last Saturday announced it had banned the breeding in captivity of dolphins, under tighter rules that campaigners hope will eventually herald the end of shows involving the animals.

French environment minister Segolene Royal on May 3 signed in Paris a version of the legislation introducing "tight controls on the reproduction of dolphins". But she later decided the rules needed to be "more radical", particularly after learning that "some animals were drugged" in aquariums.

The new French rules ban the captivity of all whales, dolphins and porpoises, except for orcas and bottlenose dolphins already held in authorized aquariums.

Animal rights activists have hailed the ban as a "historic French advance", as stated by five conservation groups, including One Voice and Sea Shepherd, in a joint statement.

"Without possible replenishment, this quite simply means the scheduled end of marine circuses on our territory."

The new rules notably also require "an increase of at least 150 percent (in the size) of pools to allow the animals to live in less proximity from visitors and other animals", the ministry said, as well as banning chlorine in treating the water.

Direct contact between the animals and the public is also now forbidden.

Water parks and aquariums have six months to conform to the new rules, and a three-year deadline for expanding their pools.

Parks such as Marineland Antibes -- the biggest attraction of its kind in Europe -- have faced growing criticism in recent years over their animals' living conditions.

The French ban is sure to have some implications for Saint Lucia’s efforts to establish a ‘Dolphinarium’ on Pigeon Island – and that might have led to the government’s second thoughts.

The SLNT expressed early opposition, citing international concern about the negative effects of keeping dolphins in captivity. But the government and the promoter’s spokespersons insisted the project was not incompatible with environmental protection and natural heritage preservation.

However, during his presentation on the 2017-18 Budget on May 10, minister in the Prime Minister’s Office with responsibility for tourism, information and broadcasting, Dominic Fedee, announced that “No decision has been taken on the dolphin project and we are open to discussion.”

The SLNT is opposed to the dolphin park, as well as the even more controversial Desert Star Holdings (DSH) ‘Pearl of the Caribbean’ project that promises to build a causeway to two other protected national landmarks in the south of the island: the Maria Islets, home to native, rare and indigenous snake and lizard species.

But its opposition has earned the SLNT a stinging whiplash from the government: its annual EC $700,000 government subvention cut as of this year.

Early news of the cut has led to a major backlash, with members and supporters of the SLNT mounting public protest demonstrations outside parliament and private ‘concerned citizens’ groups organizing similar protests around the island.

The brunt of the SLNT’s opposition to the dolphin park plan has to do with keeping the dolphins in captivity, which is opposed by the international marine life agencies that have proven that captive dolphins can turn on trainers and admiring fans at sea circuses.

A Mexican company is involved in the Saint Lucia plan and also reportedly associated with a similar park in Jamaica. But the owners have been very quiet about their plans here, even though over US $5 million has been pumped into the project since December 2016.

The Saint Lucia plan also faces objection from two international tourism entities serving the island and the region: Virgin Holidays (which serves the island) says it will not sell any more holidays to new destinations with dolphins in captivity; and says it too will not market such destinations.

Internationally renowned sea animal circuses like Florida’s Sea World have adapted their policies, under pressure, to release and replace dolphins being used in exhibition encounters after a defined period of use.

They are also under pressure for the manner in which dolphins are captured and the very confined conditions under which they are held, leading to increasing numbers of attacks on trainers and humans, as well as dolphins eating their young instead of growing them in captivity.

The French ban is only the latest in a number of similar actions in countries around the world where captive dolphins have attracted attention, study and criticism and operators of dolphin parks are coming under increasing pressure to treat the animals better, or stop capturing them.

The operators behind the Saint Lucia project have not yet indicated where their dolphins will come from, under what conditions they will be kept, whether there will be a breeding aspect to the operations, or how long their captive dolphins will be kept entertaining humans or whether they will be replaced over time.

The French ban will certainly boost the arguments of those opposed to the establishment of a dolphin park on Saint Lucia, at a time when pressure is growing regionally and internationally to protect and better treat dolphins and other sea animals captured and trained to entertain humans outside their natural habitat.

But the tourism minister’s surprising revelation that “no decision has been taken” on the dolphin project has cast a new light on the issue, leading to suspicions the government may be having second thoughts about a project it earlier insisted was good for the island’s tourism.
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