Why I sometimes hate conservation – or, the ‘dolphin breeding ground’ debacle

September 21, 2017

This fisherman is about to open a can of worms here for the second time.

The first time was when I agreed with a national legislator who suggested opening the National Parks to sport and small-scale artisanal fishing. Thirty-eight NGOs screamed, “No!” I suggested they open them and charge a fee to fish there to raise money for enforcement patrols, which were, and still, are nearly non-existent.

Here I go again, about to raise the hair on the backs of the necks of many in the environmental crowd. It started when a post hit my inbox with a petition sponsored by Planet Rehab.org on the Change.org website, which allows anyone in the world to start an online petition for free. This petition urged people to help stop a Hilton Curio hotel from being built in Puerto Jiménez, in the country’s Southern Zone.

The petition’s headline read, “Prevent Hilton from building a hotel on top of a Dolphin Breeding Ground.” The sub-headline that followed was a stern message to Hilton which read, “Hilton, we’re breaking up with you, so we can save the dolphins before it’s too late!” Over 50,000 people have signed the petition, and they appear to be gaining more signatures every day.

A very wise man once gave me some very sage advice when he told me, “Always put your cards on the table, because once they are on the table, they are off the table.” So here come my cards.

I am very well-versed on this subject. For the last 18 years I have walked the pier at Crocodile Bay as Fishing Director, sending thousands of tourists out sport fishing. The Crocodile Bay property is the site where the Hilton will be built. I also know the person behind the petition very well. After five decades on the water, I also know a little bit about dolphins.

If you think I am going to defend the Hilton project in this article, you will be sorely disappointed. The developers are big boys and can do that for themselves. Because I spend a lot time working with marine conservation and am employed by the developers, people often corner me looking for my opinion. I have never given an opinion pro or con; it’s not my place to defend the project. What I have defended against many times is fabricated statements from environmental zealots who prey on uninformed or uneducated people to support their opinion for whatever their cause is.

The Change.org petition states that the area in question is “essential for the reproduction of many marine species, potentially destroying endemic dolphin breeding grounds and putting all aquatic marine life in imminent danger.”

It continues, “This large-scale Hilton Hotel Botanika Resort can only be stopped by an urgent appeal to the directors of Hilton Curio Worldwide, alerting them to the potential damage their project will cause.”

The key word in both those statements is “potential.” It is a word that can be used as a giant loophole to cover one’s tail when making outlandish statements.

Maybe I could post a petition on Change.org to my own advantage. It would read something like this. “Todd Staley is a fisherman and mediocre writer. He has a couple of tattoos and on the weekends when it is not raining, he rides his Harley Davidson. Staley could potentially roust up a bunch of bikers and pillage your pueblo. Please donate today to buy him a new boat to keep him on the water and off the street.”

I slowly waded through many of the comments left by people who signed the Hilton petition. After I got through the vulgarities and the threats to never sleep in a Hilton again, I stumbled on some I really liked:

“Please verify the findings on marine biologists for the claim in this petition and look to relocate to a less fragile location.”

“This is unacceptable if these dolphins loose there breeding ground were would they Go, for all we know if would take them years or months to find a new place to breed and are dolphins would be more endanger then ever.”

“Apparently they ( Hilton) did not research this very well to even think about building on a Dolphin breeding ground.”

And my personal favorite, “Dolphins are people too.”

Why is that my favorite? Because “dolphins are people too” is a lot closer to the truth than anything else I read. After observing dolphins while fishing for over fifty years, I decided to ask some marine experts, “What exactly is a dolphin breeding ground?” I sought the opinion of a marine biologist, a marine mammal expert, and a woman who has worked alongside dolphins and whales here in Costa Rica for years.

They told me that reproductive habits of dolphins are not defined exclusively by the need to perpetuate the species: like humans, these cetaceans mate for pleasure with individuals of the opposite sex, of the same genus or even a different species from their own, so talking about reproductive habits in strict terms does not apply to dolphins. Some researchers think that their recreational sexuality has social purposes. When a female feels she will deliver her calf, she tends to move away from her pod and separates herself to an area near the water surface to facilitate the first breath of her calf. There is no particular area dolphins go to mate or birth.

There are no dolphin “no-tell motels” or maternity wards. They mate whenever and wherever they happen to be when the mood hits them, and birth wherever they are when the time comes. There is no such thing as a “dolphin breeding ground.”

If the people who posted that petition are really just concerned about dolphins, I suggest they push away their tuna salad and worry about the large pods of dolphins that are netted hundreds of times to catch the tuna that swim under them. The dolphins are later released. A few dolphins die in the process; I’m sure the dolphins don’t like it. Thankfully, there is a fast-growing trend and demand for sustainably caught fish, and tuna fishermen are beginning to search out selective gear with little or no bycatch.

Anger or fear are great motivators. But in this case, 50,000 people – and counting – have been misled.

I really love conservation work. The politics of conservation can at times be quite frustrating, and the business of conservation can be at times disgusting. NGOs will sometimes work on similar projects but never communicate with each other for fear of losing credit for a success or even potential donor money. If they communicated, they could get things done faster and more cheaply, but conservation and environmental work are sometimes big business. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous people out there who will misuse donor money or even advertise for fake causes to raise money.

Sadly, this “dolphin breeding ground” petition, and the reaction to it, only fortifies an opinion I have held for some time. That is the difference between a conservationist and an environmentalist: a conservationist makes decisions based on science, while an environmentalist at times makes science based on decisions.

Read Todd Staley’s Wetline Costa Rica columns here.

Todd Staley has run fishing sport operations on both coasts of Costa Rica for over 25 years. He recently decided to take some time off to devote full time to marine conservation. Contact him at wetline@hotmail.com.

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