WAIANAE, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A proposal to ban swimming with wild spinner dolphins in Hawaii has led to emotional testimony at public hearings across the state.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to keep swimmers, vessels, and drones at least 50 yards away from Hawaiian spinner dolphins within two nautical miles from shore. The regulations would also cover designated waters between Maui, Lanai and Kahoolawe.
NOAA officials are worried that constant human contact is harming the dolphins, which use nearshore waters to rest during the day after feeding all night.
"Based on research from other areas in other countries, there is evidence that this long-term chronic stress can lead to population-level effects. It can affect reproduction and habitat abandonment," said Ann Garrett, assistant regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries' Pacific Islands Regional office.
There are 35 operators in Hawaii that offer tours to swim with dolphins, according to NOAA.
Visitors from around the world look forward to an up-close encounter during their vacation.
"It's just one of those bucket list things when you come to Hawaii," said Australian visitor Ricky Cecil. "You go to the ocean and swim with the dolphins."
Dolphins and You, a company that takes swimmers off the coast of Waianae, is against the proposed ban.
Vice President Shanti Holland said workers educate guests about respectful behavior and discourage chasing, splashing or disturbing the marine mammals.
"We drop at least 50 yards in front of the pod, the direction that they're moving. We drop the people there and we wait for the dolphins to come to the people," he said.
Under the proposal, that approach -- known as "leapfrogging" -- would not be allowed.
"We understand that they're curious animals and they'll come up to boats," Garrett said. "They'll bow ride and they'll even come see individuals when they're swimming, but they tend to not stick around very long and so we're asking people to make sure that's the case and that they're not chasing them or provoking them."
The final public hearing is set for Wednesday at Waianae High School, starting at at 5:30 p.m.
NOAA officials said if the proposal becomes a rule, it would likely go into effect sometime next year.