In a move that is angering conservationists, Ocean Park will fund research by the government of the Solomon Islands into dolphin numbers as part of an arrangement that may lead to up to 30 bottlenose dolphins being imported to the theme park. Representatives from Ocean Park have been in talks with the government of the country, east of Papua New Guinea, to pay for a survey seen as critical to allowing the controversial trade in dolphins to continue. In return, the theme park is expected to get an option to buy dolphins to bring to Hong Kong. A Solomon Islands government adviser told the South China Morning Post yesterday the representatives met two government ministers and are expected to sign a memorandum of understanding under which 'between 24 and 30' dolphins would be sent to Hong Kong. Ocean Park chairman Allan Zeman insisted last night the talks were at a 'very preliminary stage' and no dolphins would be imported to Hong Kong unless it was clear that the marine mammals' population in the Solomon Islands was not at risk. 'If the dolphins there are not sustainable, we would go somewhere else,' he said. 'There are a lot of dolphins around, of different species.' Zeman said no decision had been taken as to how many dolphins Ocean Park should import. The park currently has 16. The theme park keeps a stock of bottlenose dolphins for performances as well as interactive programmes that allow limited touching of the animals by visitors. The park used to buy fresh stocks of dolphins as needed. The last time it did so is believed to have been in 1998, when some were bought from Indonesia. In 2001, it became the world's first aquarium to breed the dolphins by artificial insemination, and more than half its present stock came from captive-breeding programmes and artificial insemination, thus reducing the need for capture in the wild. To improve genetic diversity and avoid inbreeding that might result in genetic weaknesses in the marine mammals, the park has also exchanged dolphin semen with overseas aquariums. A spokeswoman for the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said it had not received any applications from Ocean Park for dolphin imports. As dolphins are a listed species under the protection of endangered-species provisions in the Animals and Plants Ordinance, imports require both an export permit issued by the country of origin and a licence issued by the department in advance. Any arrangement with the Solomon Islands is likely to stir controversy, with some conservationists claiming the country's dolphin stocks may not be sustainable and arguing that all dolphin exports from it should be halted. Dr Suzanne Gendron and Grant Abel from Ocean Park visited the country late last month. Dr Baddley Anita, an adviser to the minister of fisheries in the Solomon Islands, said the pair met the fisheries and environment ministers. Ocean Park had agreed to fund an 'abundance survey' of dolphins - which Anita described as a way of getting overseas parties interested in importing dolphins to give something to the Solomon Islands in return. 'I have heard that Hong Kong wants between 24 and 30 animals to improve their genetic stocks ...' Anita said. 'They are in the stages of having an MOU done between Ocean Park and scientific and management authorities here in the Solomon Islands. 'The Solomon Islands does not have the money to carry out scientific research, so we have asked people who want to import to put their money where their mouth is.' The research would 'give us an idea of the dolphin stocks and abundance in this area', he said, pointing out that the sea area around the Solomon Islands was about the size of Europe, with the case study area alone covering 20,000 to 30,000 square kilometres. Arguing in favour of a continuation of the overseas trade in dolphins, Anita said it would help stop the killing of the animals by dolphin harvesting communities in the Solomon Islands for food and to meet school fees and buy fishing gear. 'You can sell 50 animals and have the quota divided between the dolphin harvesting communities rather than have them kill a total of 2,000 to 3,000 animals a year,' he said. A report last year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) raised concerns over the dolphin population in the Solomon Islands, which is currently able to sell 50 of the animals a year overseas, and said the trade should be halted pending a detailed survey. The Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society criticised Ocean Park for funding a government survey that it argued would not be impartial and would seek to continue the lucrative trade in dolphins. In 2003, 28 live dolphins were sold to Mexico by the island country for HK$585,000 each, according to the IUCN report, which said such exports should be stopped unless the population was properly assessed and shown to be sustainable. It said that if the international standard, under which only 1-2 per cent of a population of a species should be removed, was applied to the Solomon Islands, the population of bottlenose dolphins would need to be at least 5,000. 'Ocean Park has a population of resident dolphins, and they claim they breed them quite well and maintain the population, so why do they need to capture more wild dolphins?' Dolphin Conservation Society chairman Samuel Hung Ka-yiu said. 'To go to the Solomon Islands is quite controversial. The Solomon Islands have exported dolphins to facilities all over the world, including Dubai, Mexico and Singapore. 'The conclusion of the IUCN report was that the bottlenose population in the Solomon Island wasquite small and that this catch was unsustainable. Basically, it recommended no further catch until a proper population assessment.' Hung said funding research by the Solomon Islands government was just 'buying by another name and in a way that makes Ocean Park look good. If Ocean Park wants to fund a study on dolphins, it should be giving the money to independent scientists, not the government of the Solomon Islands. Any report by the Solomon Islands government is bound to come out in a way that is favourable to the government's view.' But Zeman said he did not believe the survey findings would be biased. 'I find it hard to believe they would slant something like that,' he said. Ocean Park would accept nothing other than a fair, impartial study. According to the IUCN report, each dolphin exported earns the Solomon Islands government about US$7,500, or 10 per cent of the selling price, in taxes. No statistics exist on the current population, but conservation groups say populations of bottlenose dolphins tend to be small, often only in the hundreds, except in areas off the western coast of Australia and the Arabian Gulf.