Mine-Sweeping Dolphins Expected to be Replaced by Robots

The U.S. Navy realizes robots are easier and cheaper to control than mine-sweeping dolphins and sea lions.

mine-sweeping dolphins
Will the Navy discard its mine-sweeping dolphins with as little thought as it did in acquiring them? (Photo: Jeff Rotman/Getty Images)
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

For the past 50 years human beings have captured and trained dolphins as instruments of war, exploiting the animals’ delicate honing systems in order to detect underwater enemy mines. The U.S. in particular is guilty of using this controversial method of warfare, but according to its latest announcement, its sea mammal program may finally be winding down as mine-sweeping dolphins are expected to be replaced by underwater robots.

The BBC reports that Captain Frank Linkous, head of the U.S. Navy’s Mine Warfare Branch, announced this week that mine-sweeping dolphins and sea lions are expected to be phased out of land mine detection beginning in 2017.

U.S. conflict with Iran might be the reason behind the Navy’s renewed favor towards underwater robotics. Earlier this year, Iran threatened to sabotage the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial commercial access point in the Persian Gulf, by lining it with hidden explosives. TakePart reported that in response, the U.S. Navy confirmed it would send its trained dolphins to the area to snuff out mines. However, according to the BBC, the Navy’s sea mammal program is expensive and time consuming. And conflicts like these are expected to be lengthy standoffs requiring more sustainable methods of protection, like underwater robots.

MORE: Ukraine Tries to Breed 'Killer Dolphins' by Strapping Guns to The Animals' Heads

Still, the end of the U.S. sea mammal program is not guaranteed. Robotic technology hasn’t yet caught up with the accuracy of a dolphin’s “echolocation” capabilities. The Navy’s proposed replacement for the mammals is an unmanned underwater vessel (UUV) named “Knifefish,” which is still being developed. If it works, it should have the capability to operate for up to 16 hours at a time, and without the costly training, shipping vessels and on-deck veterinary team required by mine-sweeping dolphins. But that’s a big “if.”

In the meantime, the most important question surrounds how the Navy will retire these animals once it decides they're no longer useful or cost-effective.

Mark J. Palmer, Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project, explained to TakePart:

While it is good news (if true) that the Navy is finally going to phase out their trained dolphin programs, we are concerned about what happens to these dolphins. Will they be rehabbed and released back into the wild?  The Navy could certainly sponsor such an effort. Or could they, if unreleasable, be retired to a large sea pen, where they would be taken care of for the rest of their lives? Or will the Navy give them to marine parks like SeaWorld to be put to work doing stupid tricks for dead fish for the rest of their lives? The Navy has a responsibility to these dolphins to provide for them in one way or the other, not shirk them off on the captive dolphin industry.

So far, the Navy hasn’t released any information about what will happen to the mammals if they are finally retired from duty. But this latest announcement should raise an important question about the role of wildlife in human affairs. No matter your feelings about the need for national security, it’s time to question our collective assumption that we should displace and exploit wild animals simpy because they’re  here, they’re useful and they can’t say “no.”

Do you think the Navy should stop using mine-sweeping dolphins in any capacity? Tell us what you think in the Comments.

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