The V.I. Senate recently gave Coral World Ocean Park on St. Thomas the green-light to construct a controversial dolphin exhibit, sending the measure to Governor John deJongh for approval.
The owners of Coral World, a marine attraction adjacent to Coki Beach on St. Thomas, requested an amendment to its current lease in order expand and use a roughly two-acre section of Water Bay to house between four and six dolphins.
The owners, Trudie and Neil Prior, also requested a Major Coastal Zone Management Permit which would allow them to begin construction of the dolphin exhibit.
The request by Coral World was passed by the Committee of the Whole by a vote of 14 to 1 on Wednesday, October 23. Senator Clarence Payne was the sole dissenting vote on the measure, which first sailed through the Committee on Economic Development and Planning, chaired by Senator Janette Millin Young.
The Economic Development Committee approved the measure during what some residents called a not well advertised meeting on Monday, October 21.
Due to the lack of advanced notice, the meeting drew only about a dozen residents opposed to the project, explained St. Thomas resident Fiona Stuart, who has been a vocal opponent of Coral World’s dolphin exhibit plans.
“There were only about a dozen opponents of the project there due to the only advance notice of the meeting being in the Senate Agenda in the V.I. Daily News on Saturday and the fact that many people are still at work at 4 p.m.,” said Stuart. “The usual agencies that are informed in advance of these types of meetings were not notified. Of course, Coral World had a number of their employees there, as always, as they knew about the meeting and can allow them to attend.”
Residents who did attend the meeting were initially unsure if they would be able to address the committee, Stuart added.
“Upon arrival we weren’t sure if they were going to allow any members of the public to testify,” she said. “Eventually Chairperson Janette Millin Young said that to ‘be fair’ she would allow five members of the public to testify.”
Stuart was one of those residents who was granted permission to testify in front of the Economic Development Committee and she urged the members to reconsider their support of the project.
“I have no scientific credentials or expertise, but respect those who do,” Stuart told the committee. “Dolphinariums are opposed by the International Humane Society, the American Humane Society, Animal Welfare Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation and many more organizations in this country and around the world dedicated to the welfare of these intelligent marine mammals. Notable critics of dolphinariums include Jacques Cousteu and his son Jean Michel, Dame Dr. Jane Goodall and Dr. Sylvia Earle.”
Coral World management has alleged that the dolphin exhibit is necessary in order to entice tourists to the island, according to a press release from the V.I. Legislature.
“Today we estimate that at least 14,000 cruise ship passengers per year effectively bypass St. Thomas, boarding ferries at the cruise ship dock to engage in the dolphin swim program in Tortola,” Coral World president and general manager Trudie Prior was quoted in the release.
Stuart reminded the committee members of Coral World’s need for its sea lion exhibit, saying it would have to shut its doors if not approved, seven years ago.
“Let me remind you that seven years ago St. Thomas Source’s headline was ‘Coral World pinning its hopes for survival on sea lions,’” said Stuart. “They said they would have to close if they didn’t get the sea lions. Coral World’s business plan for the sea lions didn’t work.”
“Our cruise ship passengers have limited time and budgets; if more of them visit Coral World will this perhaps take business away from other existing businesses such as the dive shops, boat tour operators, the kayak eco tours, the new zipline and Main Street,” she said. “Would we just be redistributing the existing tourist dollars? We see that St. Maarten is beating us in cruise ship spending and revenues, but they don’t have a dolphinarium.”
Stuart also raised concerns over the quality of the water in Water Bay and questioned Coral World’s plan to test for bacteria in the area themselves.
“I don’t want Coral World to close but other avenues can be explored to expand their attractions rather than by the potential degradation of Water Bay and the exploitation of marine mammals,” said Stuart. “Of supreme importance is the potential environmental impact of this proposed facility. Coral World states in their own EAR that ‘the bay is highly impacted by runoff and discharge into the bay from the large watershed which primarily discharges through the Renaissance/Pelican Cove property.’ Coral World’s own consultant veterinarian Dr Reiderson is quoted in the Journal of American Veterinary Medicine Association News of September 2004 as stating ‘runoff contributes to the emergence of disease in marine mammals’ and ‘human health is also threatened by runoff.’”
St. John resident Anne Marie Porter objected to the measure because some things are more important than money, she explained.
“For me, it is heart breaking that our U.S. Virgin Island community justifies this animal abuse because it is a way to increase revenues to the islands,” said Porter “‘More tourist dollars,’ is what you hear at all these hearings. To separate dolphins, who are highly intelligent, sentient beings, from their families and natural environments for financial advancement and entertainment is a shameful example to set for the children here.”
Before the dolphin exhibit becomes a reality, however, the measure must still be approved by Governor John deJongh and the Army Corps of Engineers, which will also review the permit and consult with federal environmental agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.