Cancun, Mexico More than two dozen dolphins captured off the Solomon Islands were flown Tuesday to an aquatic park halfway around the world in Cancun, sparking an international debate about the growing entertainment industry surrounding the animals.
Animal activists had warned the dolphins wouldn't survive the long trip from the South Pacific to Cancun, but park officials and Mexico's environmental protection agency said all 28 mammals were healthy. Journalists were given a tour of the park, and the dolphins were seen jumping and devouring fish in three sea corrals a short distance off the white-sand beaches of Cancun.
Parque Nizuc, one of several Cancun attractions that invite tourists to swim with dolphins held in captivity, flew the animals from the Solomon Islands, nearly tripling the park's original dolphin population of 15.
Most large water parks, including those in the United States, use only dolphins they breed in captivity. But the growing popularity of parks that allow tourists to swim with and touch dolphins have sparked a cottage industry of unregulated, beach-side attractions starring the marine mammals.
Many countries, including Mexico, prohibit the capture of dolphins in their national waters, but allow their importation. Gerardo Huertas of the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals said that appeared to be spawning a market for the capture of dolphins in areas with few regulations, like the Solomon Islands and Cuba.
"These are dark times," he said. "If they can do it in the Solomon Islands, they can do it in other places. We may be seeing the beginning of a market that's worse than any we've seen."
Many countries, including Mexico, have signed international accords that require the protection of local dolphin species.
Activists claim some 200 dolphins have been caught off the Solomon Islands and officials there didn't study the impact of removing that many marine mammals. The Solomon Islands is in a state of near anarchy, and international peacekeeping forces are due Thursday.
Residents of the main island of Guadalcanal have clashed with settlers from neighboring islands, and there is little rule of law.
Animal welfare groups say local fishermen were paid $60 for each dolphin they captured and the animals were then held in crowded, shallow pens before being flown to Mexico.
The Australian government had asked Mexico to block the dolphins' flight to Cancun. But Mexico refused, saying Parque Nizuc met all requirements for importation and officials had no reason to deny the request.
The cargo jet carrying the dolphins arrived Tuesday. Each animal traveled in a blue sling hung from a metal frame.
Mexico and the United States are the biggest markets for dolphin attractions, and Huertas said customers might have to make tough decisions about whether to patronize aquatic parks that feature dolphins captured in the wild.
"People will have to decide if they want to see dolphins in captivity doing pirouettes," Huertas said.