In response to a boom in marine tourism, the Jamaican government (in collaboration with CITES) has moved to implement a new set of guidelines for dolphin conservation in the Caribbean. It sounds like an exciting end to long-standing concern for Caribbean dolphins ... but scientists fear the proposal isn't all it's cracked up to be. 

Dolphin capture in the Caribbean to supply captive facilities has been an issue of concern for over a decade. Image: R_A_L/Flickr

Perhaps the most noteworthy piece of the new policy puzzle is the requirement for any dolphin received by a captive facility to be acquired under strict guidelines and only after ecological surveys are done to establish how the capture will affect the local ecosystem.

"Trying to improve the situation with dolphin captures in the Caribbean has been an issue talked about for over a decade," explains Dr Chris Parsons, who has been involved in whale and dolphin research for just as many years. "There has been big concern over unsustainable captures in Cuba and there were illegal catches in the Dominican Republic too (despite there being laws prohibiting catches) that lead to huge public outcry locally."

Animal Welfare Institude marine mammal specialist Dr. Naomi Rose echoes this sentiment, adding that the welfare of Jamaica's captive dolphins has been compromised by poorly regulated facilities. 

On paper the new rules represent a great stride towards loosening the illegal wildlife trade's grip on local marine life, but it's important to remember that this sort of 'fix-all' reform only works if a clear enforcement strategy is put in place.

"[There is some concern] that this will be 'poop' protection only on paper," explains Parsons (best conservation acronym ever!). Important questions like who will monitor the new rules and divvy out punishment for rule-breakers remain largely unanswered by the proposal making its real impact an iffy one.

"The guidelines need to be enforceable [and] they need to be finalized yesterday," says Rose. "... in the decade and more [that] the government has been delaying, at least one dolphinarium has been built (with a lot of local damage to the environment)."

Despite obvious policy-maker problems here, the news isn't just doom and gloom ... short-term goals identified in the plan, like implementing a photo identification survey to track local populations, seem much more attainable and a good place to start.

"To date, no population estimates or surveys have been conducted in the Wider Caribbean," explain the policy makers. "The population sizes of the various species of dolphins occurring around Jamaica are therefore unknown."

The suggested three-year survey would help local scientists determine which species of dolphins move through Jamaican waters, how many individuals there are, and most importantly, how local stocks are being affected by legal and illegal dolphin catches. Like all scientific projects, the success of this one hangs on available funding and manpower (so far, they're still on the hunt for both).

We'll be keeping an eye out for any updates and hope to see some progress! 

Top header image: lolilujah/Flickr