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New Regulation Protects Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins Against Disturbance

September 28, 2021

A final rule prohibits swimming with, approaching, or remaining within 50 yards of spinner dolphins. A proposed rule may establish time-area closures of select nearshore resting areas. 

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Like all animals, Hawaiian spinner dolphins need rest. Spinner dolphins are nocturnal feeders that perform critical resting behaviors during the day while in safe, nearshore areas. But for decades, spinner dolphins in Hawaiʻi have experienced intense viewing pressure from commercial and recreational wildlife viewers seeking close encounters with the charismatic marine mammals.

A new regulation will now require the public to respect spinner dolphins' space so they can shelter undisturbed in their resting habitat close to shore.

No Swimming With, Approaching, or Remaining Within 50 Yards of Spinner Dolphins

On September 28, 2021, NOAA Fisheries finalized a rule authorized under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It prohibits swimming with, approaching, or remaining within 50 yards of a Hawaiian spinner dolphin. The rule applies to any vessel, person, or object (including all boats, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, drones, or any other means) that is within 2 nautical miles from shore in the main Hawaiian Islands and in designated waters bounded by the islands of Lāna‘i, Maui, and Kahoʻolawe. The rule also prohibits approach by “interception” or placing a vessel, person, or other object in the path of a spinner dolphin so that the dolphin approaches within 50 yards of the vessel, person, or object.

This final rule will officially be in effect on October 28, 2021, 30 days after it was published in the Federal Register.

There are eight exceptions to the prohibitions listed in this regulation, summarized below:

  1. People who inadvertently come within 50 yards of a Hawaiian spinner dolphin or are approached by a spinner dolphin, provided they make no effort to engage or pursue the animal and take immediate steps to move away from it
  2. Vessels that are underway and approached by a spinner dolphin, provided that they continue normal navigation and make no effort to engage or pursue the animal
  3. Vessels transiting to or from a port, harbor, or in a restricted channel to maintain safe navigation when a 50-yard distance will not allow the vessel to maintain safe navigation
  4. Vessel operations necessary to avoid imminent and serious threats
  5. Vessels that are anchored or aground and approached by a spinner dolphin, provided the vessel makes no effort to engage or pursue the animal
  6. People or vessels conducting activities authorized through a NOAA Fisheries permit or authorization
  7. Government vessels and personnel conducting official duties
  8. Commercial fishing vessels that incidentally “take” a spinner dolphin during normal fishing operations, provided that they operate legally according to the Marine Mammal Protection Act                                           

Time-Area Closures of Select Daytime Habitats Also Being Proposed

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Swimming spinner dolphin swimming with people in a canoe in the background.
During their daily resting period, Hawaiian spinner dolphins are exposed to disturbance from people seeking close interactions. A new regulation prohibits swimming with, approaching, or remaining within 50 yards of a Hawaiian spinner dolphin, and a new rule has been proposed for time area closures in the dolphins’ essential daytime habitats.  Shown here: Kayakers getting close to spinner dolphins. Credit: Julian Tyne.

NOAA Fisheries is also proposing to establish time-area closures to reduce disturbance in five nearshore areas designated as essential daytime habitats for spinner dolphins. This regulation would prohibit entering restricted areas between 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily in parts of Kealakekua, Hōnaunau, Kauhakō (Ho‘okena), and Makako Bays on Hawai‘i Island, and La Perouse Bay on Maui.

Since this is a proposed rule, a decision on whether to finalize the rule will not happen until after the public has an opportunity to comment. The public comment period for the proposed time-area closures will be open until December 27, 2021, 90 days after publication in the Federal Register.

There are six proposed exceptions to the time-area closure prohibitions, summarized below:

  1. Vessel operations necessary to avoid an imminent and serious threat
  2. Activities authorized through a NOAA Fisheries permit or authorization
  3. Government vessels and personnel conducting official duties
  4. Vessels transiting straight through the area that are participating in organized canoe races
  5. Vessels transiting straight through the closures to access privately owned property adjacent to the restricted areas
  6. Outrigger canoes used for traditional subsistence fishing

Why Are These Rules Necessary?

Spinner dolphins are nocturnal and hunt in offshore waters at night. During the day, they use areas close to shore that have optimal environmental conditions to socialize, nurture their young, shelter from predators, and rest in preparation for nightly hunting. These specific areas are considered spinner dolphin essential daytime habitats.

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Spinner dolphin around a crowd of people and boaters.
Spinner dolphins are facing increasing pressure from people seeking close interactions. Shown here: Multiple boats and dozens of people in the water with spinner dolphins.

Biological Impacts

Spinner dolphins disturbed during this crucial period may engage in avoidance or distress behaviors. And a lack of consistent, undisturbed resting periods can reduce the amount of energy they have for hunting and caring for their young. Chronic exposure to human activities in their daytime essential habitat may place resident populations of spinner dolphins at risk through habitat displacement or reduced health.

Even though spinner dolphins can simply “swim away” from people or vessels if they are disturbed, doing so interrupts their rest. It keeps them in a state of vigilance, and forces them to expend energy to increase their swimming speed and/or change direction. This energy expenditure leads to less energy available for other important behaviors, such as hunting and nurturing their young, affecting their health and ability to feed.

Predation Risks

Further, leaving their preferred resting habitat altogether can lead to a greater risk of predation if spinner dolphins relocate to a more vulnerable spot. It can also lead to greater energetic demands if they need to travel farther distances at night to reach their feeding grounds.

These regulations are intended to prevent disturbance and harassment of Hawaiian spinner dolphins from occurring in areas where viewing pressures are most prevalent. This includes areas close to shore and spinner dolphin essential daytime habitats where there are high levels of disturbance from human activities.

It’s the Law

Harassment of marine mammals, including spinner dolphins, is already prohibited under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. But close interactions between humans and spinner dolphins continue to occur despite the prohibitions, guidelines, outreach, and stewardship efforts that were already in place. Based on the best available scientific information, we have determined that additional regulations are required to protect Hawaiian spinner dolphins from activities that result in harassment and other forms of disturbance.

How Can I Help?

Here are ways you can help protect spinner dolphins:

Spinner dolphin illustration.

Read and Understand the Spinner Dolphin Regulations

To fully understand these new regulations, we recommend reading them in their entirety. Follow the links below to access the complete regulations and other helpful information.

Report Any Violations or Wildlife Emergencies

If you see someone acting in a manner that does not comply with marine wildlife regulations, including the Final 50-yard Swim-With and Approach Rule, the best way you can help is to report the incident. You can also report potential violations that you see on social media. Submit videos or photos of potentially illegal encounters with monk seals, dolphins, whales, and sea turtles by calling:

  • NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline: (888) 256-9840 (best number for all protected marine wildlife emergencies, enforcement is option 6)
  • NOAA Office of Law Enforcement: (800) 853-1964
  • Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources DOCARE: (808) 643-DLNR (3567)

You can also send videos, photos, and social media links to RespectWildlife@noaa.gov, or download and submit a report through the DLNRTip app.

Last updated by Pacific Islands Regional Office on September 28, 2021