GULFPORT -- A former dolphin trainer at Marine Life Oceanarium in Gulfort says she has collected more than 91,000 signatures on a petition she hopes will scuttle the proposed Mississippi Aquarium, which she calls a dolphin prison.
But Mayor Billie Hewes, one of the biggest supporters of the project in his city, says far more people in Mississippi favor the project than oppose it.
Of the 91,792 signatures the petition website says it has collected, 501 of them were from Mississippi as of noon Wednesday.
"BP's deepwater drilling disaster in 2010 had a huge impact on dolphins -- killing them, making them sick, and even keeping them from having healthy calves for years after the spill. But instead of helping restore dolphin habitat and populations, Mississippi is planning on spending $17 million in restoration funds to build an aquarium on the coast. Even worse? This aquarium plans on putting captive dolphins on display! The Governor's plan makes BP's dolphin disaster even more tragic," begins the overview of the petition started on thepetitionsite.com by Kelly McNab Williams and Care2, an activist community that claims 34 million members.
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Hewes said those people are in the minority.
"There is more enthusiasm about this aquarium project from a local, state and regional basis than anything I've ever seen," he said. "And that includes the dolphin exhibit.
"How many people showed up at that protest two weeks ago? They're entitled to their opinion."
That May 7 protest had about 10 people, judging from photos of the event, who are against using captive dolphins for entertainment.
"The Gulf desperately needs BP dollars to go to ecosystem restoration and recovery -- wetlands, blue water, living shorelines," Williams said "It's outrageous that the single largest project that the state intends to spend BP dollars on is the aquarium."
Williams said her opinion of aquariums and dolphin shows changed after a baby dolphin died in her arms.
"I tried to keep the baby wet and calm, but the baby started to scream for its mother, who then started screaming back," she wrote in an email announcing the petition. "The head trainer and I begged to put the baby back in the water, but to no use. After about 15 minutes of this horrific display, the baby arched its back and screamed for one last time. It simply shut its blowhole and ceased to breathe."
Williams said that death cemented her opposition to dolphin captivity.
"It was clear to me that it's inhumane to capture dolphins and keep them in captivity," she said. "The last thing coastal Mississippi needs is a new dolphin prison."
Hewes said the aquarium will be a family-oriented attraction the region needs.
"We're going to make it very immersive, interactive," he said. "You're going to have touch pools, you're going to have conservation. You're going to have an educational component. You going to have entertainment. We're going to make it fun."
Signers of the petition expressed sentiments similar to Williams, though.
"They belong in the Gulf. Not in tanks. Better to run dolphin watch boats!" and "BP monies need to be spent on the dying dolphin and sea turtle populations, restoring habitats and not on an aquarium tourist attraction with captive sea life to be located in the city of Gulfport!"