What do you do with a few marine mammals when you decide it’s too expensive to keep feeding and housing them?
In the case of Kina, a false killer whale, and Boris and BJ, a pair of bottlenose dolphins, last August the University of Hawaii decided to offer them up to the highest bidder, to save on the $900,000 a year it was spending to care for, feed and train the animals.
But UH officials neglected to get the legally-required permit to sell the creatures, which as protected species are subject to stringent state and federal regulations.
At the time, Kina, Boris and BJ were housed at the university’s Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology Coconut Island facility, where for 13 years they had been the subjects of studies into their hearing and echolocation abilities by the institute’s director, Paul Nachtigall.
The highest bidder turned out to be Sea Life Park, according to a UH release and documents obtained through a records request by Catherine Goeggel, president of the activist group Animal Rights Hawaii.
After the university sold the trio to the park in Waimanalo for an undisclosed amount, Goeggel informed Hawaii’s Department of Agriculture of the transfer at a state Plant Quarantine Branch board meeting.
Goeggel said the board had been oblivious about the transfer. And, because the DOA didn’t issue a permit, no meetings were held to discuss the animals’ move to Sea Life Park. For a dolphin transfer a few months earlier, Goeggel said the anti-captivity group, which has kept tabs on captive marine mammals since 1977, was involved in the process.
Before cetaceans (dolphins, whales or porpoises) can be transported legally, a DOA permit is required, since they’re classified as restricted commodities, said Jonathan Ho, DOA Plant Quarantine acting inspection and compliance chief. This ensures the department can keep track of the animals and see that they’re properly housed once they are transported to a new facility.
A transfer notification also must be submitted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. UH completed the transfer notification on time and gave NOAA notice of its intent to sell the animals, according to documents provided by Goeggel.
Ho said that after the issue was brought to his attention at a board meeting, the Plant Quarantine branch began looking into the matter. Sea Life Park already houses animals permitted by the Plant Quarantine Branch and Ho said a site inspection was conducted within the last two months. Sea Life Park is in good standing with the branch, Ho said.
Scott Enright, chairperson of the Hawaii Board of Agriculture, said UH had been working with a permit from the late 1980s, when the animals first arrived in-state and were purchased from the U.S. Navy. Since then, the rules for transferring those animals have changed and federal permits are required.
After speaking with UH, Enright says the rule change is now understood. On April 26, the Department of Agriculture retroactively granted the permit for the transfer of Kina, Boris and BJ more than seven months earlier.
Enright said UH is a partner of the DOA and he knows the animals have been used for important research.
An Attorney General’s Office investigation of the transfer, conducted in October 2015, found that neither UH nor Sea Life Park had engaged in any wrongdoing, according to Joshua Wisch, special assistant to the Attorney General.
Enright characterized the issue as an oversight, and said the technical term “investigation” seemed too strong — it was a review to find out how the permit had been overlooked, he said.
“Because UH had the animals, they should’ve been inquiring … and Sea Life Park should’ve been asking,” Enright said.
UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said UH’s general counsel is checking to see how the oversight happened. Per the agreement with Sea Life Park, he said UH made sure its federal permits for the animals were transferred to the park, which was responsible for transporting the animals.
He said that UH didn’t try to keep the transfer a secret; the university announced the move publicly, and local TV stations covered the event.
Sea Life Park General Manager Valerie King said the DOA was notified before the park conducted the transfer, but the department did not mention that a permit was needed. She said Sea Life Park had never needed to obtain that particular permit before, so it was unaware of the requirement.
King said some things were rushed because the transfer was done out of necessity for the well-being of Kina, Boris and BJ.
King said Kina’s records show she was captured in the wild from a Japanese drive hunt, a type of hunt in which marine animals are boxed in by boats and “driven” to the shore. These hunts have become notorious for their inhumane and bloody capture methods.
Sea Life Park is a member of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, which prohibits facilities from joining the alliance if they acquire animals captured from Japanese drive fisheries.
King said Sea Life Park notified the AMMPA of Kina’s origins, but that the alliance agreed that under the circumstances, the park was the best option for the false killer whale.
“[The transfer] was the only option for the animal, and that was in the best interest of the animal,” she said of Kina, believed to be about 40 years old. “Everybody agreed that this is the only place really that would be suitable.”
After being captured in the wild, Kina was brought to Ocean Park Hong Kong, according to Meisenzahl. He said the U.S. Navy bought Kina from the park in 1987.
The dolphins, Boris, 27, and BJ, 30, were born in a Kaneohe Bay U.S. Navy laboratory, according to the UH release.
Jeff Pawloski, Sea Life Park curator, said the animals currently are being housed in a backstage facility away from the public, because when the animals were kept at the Coconut Island facility, there weren’t many people around. After keeping the animals isolated to ensure they were in good health, Pawloski said the animals now are able to mingle with each other and other dolphins in the park.
In the future, he said the animals could join the park’s exhibits — some are for viewing, some allow guests to join the animals in the water and others are shows that combine performance and education. But for now, Sea Life Park staff is taking things one step at a time.
“Our first and foremost goal is for the well-being of the animals,” Pawloski said. “We want to make sure the transition is as smooth as possible for these guys.”