Plans for a dolphin exhibit at St. Thomas’ Coral World took a large step forward Wednesday when the V.I. Legislature voted to approve a Coastal Zone Management permit and lease amendment for the expansion. [Coral World Lease Amendment and Permit]
The plans have generated controversy. Opponents argue that keeping dolphins in captivity is inherently cruel and allege the project will lower water quality.
Proponents counter that extensive research and data collection indicate that water quality should not be significantly affected, and that Coral World’s plans to use dolphins bred in captivity and plans for their care are not cruel. They also argue that dolphin exhibits are large tourist draws and money generators, and that the territory is currently seeing tourists leave to visit a dolphin facility in the British Virgin Islands.
Numerous senators expressed sympathy for the concerns of opponents about cruelty but most ultimately supported the permit and lease request.
Sen. Clarence Payne said economic development is extremely important but "an evolving society" has to move beyond mistreating animals or the environment. "Protecting animals and protecting the environment have to remain in the equation," Payne said. He later voted against the permit and lease.
"I am for economic development as long as it is done properly," Sen. Nereida "Nellie" Rivera-O’Reilly said, endorsing the project, but calling for regular oversight.
Sen. Judi Buckley said she understood opponents’ concerns but said there is a dolphin facility in the British Virgin Islands that will be in operation regardless of what the territory does and tourists are "leaving in droves" to visit it after they arrive on St. Thomas.
Sen. Craig Barshinger similarly said he understood people’s concerns but said there would be plenty of opportunity to step in and regulate if a problem arises.
"I believe those who are opposed to this out of concern for the animals will have ample opportunity to keep eye on them and how they are doing," Barshinger said.
Voting in favor of the CZM permit and lease were Barshinger, Buckley, O’Reilly, Sens. Diane Capehart, Donald Cole, Kenneth Gittens, Clifford Graham, Alicia "Chucky" Hansen, Myron Jackson, Shawn-Michael Malone, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Tregenza Roach, Sammuel Sanes and Janette Millin Young. Payne voted no.