Feds Sued for Banning Swimming With Dolphins, Hurting Hawaiian Economy

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A businesswoman in Hawaii is suing the Biden administration for hurting her business by illegally banning swimming with spinner dolphins, a popular tourist and therapeutic activity that generates a living for many residents of the 50th state.

Spinner dolphins “received their common name because they are often seen leaping and spinning out of the water … up to seven times in the air before falling back into the water,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports.

The legal problem, according to the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) a not-for-profit national public interest law firm that is representing the plaintiffs, is that the low-level federal bureaucrat in the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) who issued the new regulation that bans these dolphin encounters had no authority under the U.S. Constitution to make the rule.

PLF attorney Michael Poon said the authority to issue regulations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act is vested in the U.S. commerce secretary, but instead, in September 2021, NMFS deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs Samuel Rauch, who was not confirmed by the U.S. Senate, is purported to have issued the regulation under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Epoch Times Photo
Michael A. Poon, attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation (Pacific Legal Foundation)

“But Mr. Rauch is a career civil servant,” Poon told The Epoch Times in an interview.

“He’s an employee. He is not a political appointee,” and is “accountable to no one.” Rauch is “certainly not appointed as an officer of the United States, even though he has rulemaking power.”

“People in the executive branch who wield significant federal power, are officers, and officers have to be fire-able by the president so that they remain accountable to him, and he [the president] remains accountable to the American people.”

Rauch’s employer, the NMFS, is an agency within NOAA, which itself is an agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Congress never gave this rulemaking power to Rauch, Poon said. Congress gave the power under the act to the secretary of commerce, who is “someone way, way higher up.”

A previous secretary of commerce “delegated this rulemaking power to the NOAA administrator … [who] delegated it to the head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who was called the Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, and the head of the National Marine Fisheries Service delegated that power to Mr. Rauch.”

Rauch’s regulation prevents humans, vessels, and objects, from swimming with or coming within 50 yards of the dolphins. Rauch had decided that the dolphin encounters constituted harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act because they could alter the dolphins’ “natural” behavior.

PLF says the rule “will destroy an entire industry without regard for the value individuals receive from interacting with the playful animals. It even forces people who are approached by dolphins to swim away and ignore the animals’ natural curiosity.”

Swimming with spinner dolphins is central to the livelihoods of many Hawaiians, significantly contributes to the state’s economy, and enriches the lives of individuals worldwide, the foundation argues.

The legal complaint (pdf) in the lawsuit Wille v. Raimondo was filed on March 21 in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, the state in which the fisheries service is headquartered.

Defendant Gina Raimondo is being sued in her official capacity as U.S. secretary of commerce.

The plaintiffs are Eliza Wille, Shelley Carey, and Lisa Denning, all of whom reside in Hawaii and participate in commercial or professional activities directed toward Hawaiian spinner dolphins.

Wille is a psychotherapist, with a master’s degree in psychology from the London School of Economics and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Hawaii. Her career has included eight years of cognition research on dolphins.

Recently Wille conducted her psychotherapy practice at Hawaii Island Recovery, a residential treatment center that deals with substance abuse, addiction, and related mental disorders, the legal complaint states.

She began employing dolphin encounters in her experiential therapy practice 10 years ago, “creating turning points for many patients’ mental health journeys.”

Such encounters can help to bring to the surface anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed and losing control, which Wille can then help patients process and overcome the complaint states.

Wille engages with the dolphins “respectfully,” according to PLF.

“She and her patients approach the dolphins on the animals’ terms—in the morning when the dolphins are most active and near the shore, and the dolphins initiate contact, not the other way around.”

The Epoch Times reached out to NMFS, which is also known informally as NOAA Fisheries, for comment but had not received a reply as of press time.

Matthew Vadum

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Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and a recognized expert in left-wing activism.



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