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The Ethics of Using Dolphins to Detect Underwater Mines

U.S. Navy May Use Mine-Detecting Dolphins to Keep Open the Strait of Hormuz

The threat of Iran closing the Strait of Hormuz has reached a fever pitch with U.S. officials warning Iran's supreme leader that such moves would cross a “red line” provoking a U.S. response. Iran could block the strait with any assortment of mines, armed speed boats or anti-ship cruise missiles but according to Michael Connell at the Center for Naval Analysis, “The immediate issue [for the U.S. military] is to get the mines.” To solve that problem, the Navy has a solution that isn't heavily-advertised but has a time-tested success rate: mine-detecting dolphins.

"We've got [MK 6] dolphins," said retired Adm. Tim Keating in an interview with NPR. Navy-trained dolphins would come in handy. They are astounding in their ability to detect underwater objects. Their skills are so precise that it takes six years to fully train the mammals. This three-minute video demonstrates just how the mine-detection process works. There is a 10-second promo so be patient.

The invasion of Iraq was the last time the minesweeping capability of dolphins was widely-touted. "Dolphins - - which possess sonar so keen they can discern a quarter from a dime when blindfolded and spot a 3-inch metal sphere from 370 feet away -- are invaluable minesweepers."

When this was an issue in 2003, lobbying for the rights of dolphins was much more politically sensitive given that scores of U.S. men and women were being sent into battle. "We're not going to second-guess the Navy at a time of war," said Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Humane Society. "But we don't support the use of marine mammals for military use." Critics emphasize that it is not a matter of placing the lives of animals above those of troops. But they question the ethics and wisdom of using wild animals to ensure safe passage through hostile waters. Back when the dolphins were first used, petitions were sent to the U.S. Defense Department protesting the use of dolphins. Still, the practice continues ten years later and has become a staple of the Navy.  

In 2010, the Seattle Times reported that the Navy has 80 bottlenose  NMMP_dolphin_with_locator in the San Diego Bay alone. They are taught to hunt for mines and drop acoustic transponders nearby. According to a report in 2003, the dolphins only detect the mines. Destroying them is left up to the Navy's human divers. Still, the mammals are large enough to detonate a live mine, a prospect that doesn't delight animal rights groups. 

Tom LaPuzza, a spokesman for the San Diego-based Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, cast aside the skepticism about how the dolphins were treated: “By nature, dolphins are naturally reliable and trustworthy animals that seem to enjoy pleasing their human handlers.” Following their release into the ocean for missions, "they come back to the handler, the trainer ashore or on a ship.” LaPuzza’s insensitivity to the ethics of using the dolphins in this way is quite alarming. 

The ethical issues are clear: Is it “right” to use animals that are not able to consent to their use for such a dangerous purpose? Dolphins do have rights under The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. The Act prohibits the capture of wild animals from U.S. waters and it regulates standards of fair treatment. However, the Navy is exempt from the Act. One has to wonder whether this is the case because of the perceived strategic need for the dolphins in times of conflict.

An ethical reasoning approach that was used in a classroom analysis by my ethics students* in a case presentation is to weigh the harms and benefits of using dolphins to detect underwater mines. A utilitarian approach might identify the following benefits:

  • Dolphins cost less to train and deploy than human divers
  • Dolphins are better at detecting mines than human counterparts
  • The use of dolphins can save millions of dollars because it limits damages to Navy ships
  • Dolphins can help save thousands of lives
  • The deployment of dolphins in strategic areas can serve the public good such as keeping the Strait of Hormuz open

The costs of using the dolphins are more difficult to assess. For example, what is the cost of taking dolphins out of their natural habitat and using them for a dangerous, self-serving purpose? Also, the dolphins can be injured or killed while “carrying out their duties.” Beyond that the costs to society include:

  • Mines can be accidentally bumped by the dolphins causing harm to the mammals
  • There is a lack of transparency about the Navy’s use of dolphins to detect mines; full disclosure is a basic ethical principle as the public has a right to know
  • Little data exists on dolphin casualties

Not surprisingly, animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) object to the use of dolphins for mine-sweeping purposes. In 2003 when dolphins were dispatched to the Persian Gulf to locate underwater mines, PETA activists were outraged, claiming that the animals had not volunteered their services and were unwittingly placed in grave danger. PETA claimed the dolphins don't realize the tasks they are being taught to perform are life and death. True enough and it may seem like a game to the dolphins as they are rewarded with lots of fish to eat after performing well during drills.

The bottom line issue here is why can’t Navy divers be equipped with the same underwater sonar capabilities as the dolphins? After all, if we are going to fight a war shouldn’t we be willing to use our troops in the battle? Some might say it is no different than using drones to hunt out and kill the enemy. However, drones are not living, breathing beings.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 5, 2012

*Thanks to those students for their contribution: Evan Kilbourne, Taryn Kirkwood, Katie Kobayasi, Ben Lis, Melissa Mallett, and Aida Mustacich