Ric O’Barry assists with dolphin rehabilitation project headed by Korean Animal Welfare Association and Seoul Mayor
On May 27th, Ric O’Barry returned to the Republic of Korea to assist with the rehabilitation of three captive dolphins that were abducted by aliens.
At least, this is Ric’s way of looking at it. And it could be the way the dolphins see it as well. But thanks to a dedicated group of individuals, such as Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and the Korean Animal Welfare Association (KAWA), these dolphin abductees could soon find themselves swimming freely with their original pod in their home range.
The dolphins were illegally captured from the waters surrounding Jeju Island in South Korea. They have spent years in captivity, languishing in the terrible conditions at Pacificland Aquarium and the Seoul Zoo. As Ric puts it, “These three dolphins lived in the wild very successfully for about ten years before they were abducted by aliens and forced into a life of show business inside a building.” Fortunately for the dolphins, efforts are now being made to return them to their rightful home. “They are now back in their home range, in a temporary sea pen, and I have every reason to believe they know exactly what to do once they are released back to their original waters.”
Ric spent about a week with the dolphins in their rehabilitation facility, which is a repurposed fish farm. Based on his previous rehabilitation experiences, he was able to conclude that the dolphins were doing well.
“They have been completely weaned off of dead fish and are catching live ones for themselves,” says Ric, highlighting the importance of breaking the reliance of the dolphins upon humans for food. “They literally need to be retaught how to live in the ocean.” The project is using the tried and tested rehabilitation and release protocol that Ric has authored, based on years of experience rehabbing and releasing captive dolphins.
While the rehabilitation work continues to get encouraging results, with the dolphins scheduled for released sometime this summer, a significant threat remains which must be addressed in order for the release to be successful in the long term. The area around Jeju Island is rife with a type of fishing nets known as ‘pound’ nets. “The pound nets are my only real concern,” says Ric, and with good reason. These nets are believed to accidentally catch up to ten percent of the local dolphin population, which comprises approximately 110 individuals. While the fishermen are able to release some, many others perish in the nets. There are no less than fifty-eight of these huge pound nets around the island.
“A ‘pound’ net is actually a very large fish trap,” Ric explains. “Sometimes dolphins follow fish into the trap. This happened on two occasions while I was in Korea recently. The rapid response by team-member Soojin Jang (a biologist with Labratory of Behavior and Ecology, Division of EcoScience) is probably what saved those dolphins.” Because Mr. Jang is very well connected to the local fishermen, Ric says that: “He understands the problem better than anyone else and is working on a solution to the pound net issue.”
This is the reason that KAWA and Dolphin Project are calling for a ban before the dolphins leave their final sea pen. “In a perfect world,” Ric notes, “the nets would be banned before the dolphins are released. Unfortunately, this could be wishful thinking,” as the pound nets are a huge part of the economy in Jeju Island. But “releasing the dolphins here is like playing Russian Roulette,” meaning that the chances of the dolphins getting accidentally re-caught is very high, which could render the whole project a wasted effort.
Ric stresses that his role in the project, at the request of the Mayor of Seoul, has been one of advice and raising awareness about the nets, but that the work ahead ultimately lies with the community. “I’m just here to help out. The fishermen and the local residents need to understand that this is their project. I have met incredible people here so far: animal welfare activists, students, scientists and even a dolphin trainer from Pacificland. These are the people who are making the dolphin release project a success.” Even the Seoul Zoo is cooperating. Everyone wants the same thing for the dolphins: The ability to get their life back.
Ric also wants to ensure that the people responsible for the project are given their due credit. “The real hero of this story is the honorable Park Won-soon, mayor of Seoul, Korea. He reminds me of Nelson Mandella,” referring to the mayor’s long history of social work and human rights activism. Mayor Won-soon made the decision last year to release one of the illegally captured dolphins from the Seoul Zoo. “Also, none of this work could have been done without the Korean Animal Welfare Association. They helped to get this project off the ground, and they are absolutely integral to its continued success.”
Underscoring the importance of the project, Ric emphasized that “if we are successful it could open the door for many more victim dolphins on display in Korea,” and also throughout the world. There is a growing understanding of why it is wrong to keep dolphins captive, as is highlighted by a recent decision in India to ban captivity completely.
Ric calls on the community and fishermen to continue to play an active role in the rehabilitation and eventual release. “The fishermen of Jeju Island must be part of this project, not separate from it. The success of the project may be in the hands of the fishing community who manage and control the fifty-eight Pound nets around Jeju Island.”
The dolphins now depend on them for their freedom, and their lives.
Photo courtesy of Korean Animal Welfare Association.