The V.I. Coastal Zone Management Committee on Thursday approved Coral World Ocean Park’s request to change their permit, allowing the park to take in four more dolphins.
Under the revision, Coral World will increase its dolphin population from four to eight, with the four additional marine mammals coming under an agreement with the Brookfield Zoo and Chicago Zoological Society in Illinois, though the dolphins are currently located elsewhere.
The permit approved Thursday allows Coral World a maximum of 15 dolphins, 12 of which can be part of the park’s interactive program while an additional three would be allowed if the park’s dolphins reproduce. That is something park officials said is not in the plan, but can’t be completely ruled out.
Thursday evening’s hearing was the second time Coral World’s legal representation, George Dudley, was present to explain to the three committee members why the adjustment was needed. During the hearing on Sept. 11 the committee agreed to wait on a decision until after members had done a walk through of the facility.
CZM member Sarah Simmonds said during the site visit a discussion was held in which Coral World confirmed it had no intention of breeding the dolphins, a subject which has caused much community contention.
Dudley agreed and said, “That is not the plan. This is not a facility designed to breed and raise dolphins.”
He added that the dolphins that are brought here can reproduce, and if they do there is an allowance for the three extra dolphins within the permit. The permit “has a top of 12, plus three.”
Coral World Chief Contractor Lee Kellar quoted a line from the movie “Jurassic World,” saying, “Life will happen.”
“There is no perfect way we can keep the animals from breeding, short of separating them, which is not a humane thing to do,” Kellar said.
Unlike humans, Kellar said, mating cycles are different within the dolphin species and it takes about three years before a dolphin is even ready to reproduce. He added dolphins are primarily a matriarchal society and males only come together during the time of breeding, in which not every male will get the chance to breed because they are not all dominant. Additionally, Coral World monitors male dolphin’s testosterone levels and knows which dolphin is the dominant. That would be the one who would very likely have the opportunity to breed.
Within the population limits set by CZM, Kellar said he feels confident Coral World can manage, “and I don’t think the scenario where 12 dolphins will all of a sudden go to 18 dolphins is going to happen.”
Other than by breeding, in order for any additional dolphins to be brought in, Dudley said, Coral World would have to come back to the committee to speak about any additional dolphins coming in, continue monthly reports on the bay’s water quality, as well as adhere to a series of other additional requirements.
BioImpact is the independent company contracted with Coral World for the water reports. But Simmonds said, “we think there should be a second testing company to do monthly tests just to spot check and make sure everything is correct.”
CZM member Winston Adams said the University of the Virgin Islands had been contacted for the job and the committee was waiting to hear back if the university’s labs were capable of handling the testing.
“I must say, having done the site visitation and spending almost two hours there did answer a lot of questions, and was completely different than what we first saw there. When we first went there it was under construction and we had no idea as to the overall issues, but we found that all the things they said they would do were in place. I was so impressed,” Adams said. But the committee member still said it was prudent to have two testing entities.
Committee members Simmonds, Adams and Karl Percell were all present for Thursday’s CZM meeting and voted in favor for the permit changes. Additional conditions were placed by the committee: bimonthly water testing performed by a secondary independent entity and notification to CZM immediately if and when a dolphin becomes pregnant, or there is a plan to impregnate a dolphin.