People will no longer be permitted to swim with spinner dolphins off the Hawaii coast as US lawmakers approved a ban on Tuesday prohibiting the popular tourist activity.
The new rules prohibit people from coming within 50 yards of Hawaiian spinner dolphins that are within 2 miles from the coast of Hawaii. The rule doesn't just apply to swimmers, it also applies to boats, canoes, stand-up paddleboards and even drones; and will effectively end many dolphin-watching tour group activities in Hawaii.
Spinner dolphins are nocturnal creatures and use shallow bays to rest during the day, which makes them accessible to humans and an easy target for tour groups who seek to interact with them. But scientists warn that these interactions have a negative effect on dolphins' wellbeing as they disturb the creatures when they should be relaxing, nurturing their young, and recovering from a night spent foraging offshore.
"Spinner dolphins disturbed during this crucial period may engage in avoidance or distress behaviors. And a lack of consistent, undisturbed resting periods can reduce the amount of energy they have for hunting and caring for their young," reads a statement from the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries).
And even though spinner dolphins can "swim away" from humans and vessels, doing so interrupts their rest. "It keeps them in a state of vigilance, and forces them to expend energy to increase their swimming speed and/or change direction," NOAA Fisheries noted. Prolonged and close-up human and vessel encounters could force spinner dolphins to change habitats, which could leave them vulnerable to predators.
The ban doesn't apply to people or vessels who inadvertently come within 50 yards of a Hawaiian spinner dolphin or are approached by a spinner dolphin "provided they make no effort to engage or pursue the animal and take immediate steps to move away from it", the guidelines state.
Following the ban, NOAA Fisheries is seeking to close off certain areas in Hawaii from 6am to 3pm to further protect spinner dolphins during critical rest time. These areas include parts of Kealakekua, Hōnaunau, Kauhakō (Ho‘okena), and Makako Bays on Hawai‘i Island, and La Perouse Bay on Maui. NOAA Fisheries is accepting public comment on the proposed rule until December 27.