HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The federal government has proposed new guidelines for protecting spinner dolphins in Hawaii that would keep swimmers and vessels at least 50 yards from the marine animals.
Swimming with spinner dolphins has become an increasingly popular tourist activity over the years.
But commercial tour operators say in the age of the selfie, clients are more interested in getting up close and personal with marine wildlife.
And experts say that's putting dolphins at risk.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is proposing the rules because constant human contact is stressing spinner dolphins out.
NOAA scientists have been studying their behavior for more than 10 years and say they've seen clear signs the marine animals are being affected by all the interaction.
"Over time their health may be impacted," said Ann Garrett, assistant regional administrator for protected resources with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.
"They may not be able to nurture their young as well or they may abandon their young. They may abandon their habitat. They may suffer severe long-term population impacts."
Spinner dolphins are nocturnal animals, hunting at night and resting during the day, But experts say that because they sleep near shore, they're vulnerable to being disturbed frequently.
Resident Kelii Sur swam with a pod of spinner dolphins off the Waianae Coast last month, and was disappointed to hear about NOAA's proposal
"We swam with them and a couple babies started playing with us, so it was a pretty cool experience," said Sur. "We are not harming them. If anything they come to us. We swim with them, but they're not scared of us. They actually want to play with us, to be honest."
But Victor Lozano, who has been operating Dolphin Excursions Hawaii since 1998, said he supports the intent of the ban.
"It's getting out of hand in a lot of areas where these animals are and they're a resource we have to protect. We have to be real responsible with them," said Lozano, the owner and president of Dolphin Excursions Hawaii.
Lozano thinks its possible for tour companies to maintain business without putting marine animals at risk.
"I'd love to see really good enforcement. Enforcement meaning on-shore, out on the water -- enforcement across the board so that it's an even playing field for everybody, but mainly to protect the dolphins," Lozano said.
Garrett, meanwhile, is hoping people will respect the marine animals need for space -- and swim, paddle or boat away if dolphins come within 50 yards.
"You can see a dolphin from 50 yards away, but not disturb it so we think this is a good distance to achieve both because we want people to experience wildlife and appreciate wildlife, but we want them to do it in a responsible manner," she said.
NOAA officials say if their proposal becomes a rule it would likely take effect sometime next year.
Enforcement would begin simply as a warning, but citations would follow. Civil violations could result in a fine of up to $27,500, while criminal offenses can result in a fine of up to $100,000.
Over the next 60 days, NOAA officials will be hosting public meetings to gather community feedback on their proposal.
Public meetings are scheduled for:
- Sept. 7 from 5:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. at Konawaena High School cafeteria in Kealakekua
- Sept. 8 from 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. at Kealakehe High School cafeteria in Kona
- Sept. 21 from 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. at Kauai High School cafeteria in Lihue
- Sept. 22 from 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. at Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center in Kihei
- Sept. 27 from 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. at Roosevelt High School dining Hall in Honolulu
- Sept. 28 from 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. at Waianae High School cafeteria in Waianae
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