Two years ago the documentary Blackfish premiered and profoundly changed the way the public viewed marine mammal captivity. While there are many activists, including Ric O’Barry and Dr. Ingrid Visser, who have advocated on behalf of captive cetaceans for decades, Blackfish was able to open a dialog about captivity in a way the animal welfare community had never seen before.

Tilikum Aftermath: 2010

Following the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, OSHA filed citations against SeaWorld recommending trainers no longer be permitted to enter the water with captive orcas. The U.S. Federal Court subsequently ruled that SeaWorld trainers could not enter the tanks without a physical barrier separating them from the whales.

Since then, the debate over marine mammal captivity has intensified.

Around the world there are still dozens of orcas, dolphins, and hundreds of other marine mammals held in captivity that actively engage with trainers, and sometimes the audience, daily. Orcas in particular perform an array of (mostly) unnatural tricks, but the excitement of the trainers and facade of happiness presented to the audience often leave many feeling as though keeping these wild animals in captivity is completely justifiable.

We know now more than ever just how socially and mentally complex marine mammals are and, consequently, forcing these animals into a life of monotony and frustration becomes all the more inhumane.

The Beginning of Marine Captivity

Prior to the release of Blackfish, the debate over marine mammal captivity was a relatively quiet one. Companies as powerful as SeaWorld easily silenced and smeared the critics who spoke out against them for years.

The truth is, marine mammal captivity spans a far greater period of time than what most marine parks lead the public to believe. It also entails a violent and discreditable past they would prefer their paying audiences not be privy to.

In the 1860s and 70s, beluga whales and dolphins were being captured and shipped to aquariums throughout the United States and Europe by the masses. By the 1960s, wild-capture whaling was underway and with little regulation. Orcas, being the newest hot commodity, were captured with the help of high-speed boats and large nets, violently forced into submission. Exhausted and traumatized, those that lived through the ordeal were taken from their families, the life that they knew, and shipped to marine mammal parks around the world.

In the 15 years that followed this new wave of live-capture and export, at least 134 orcas were captured in U.S. waters. A number of orcas died during the violent capture process, and more than half of those brought into captivity are now dead.

Between 1970 and 1971 alone, ten orcas were captured from Puget Sound off the coast of Washington state. Half of the animals were sent to SeaWorld, one (Lolita) was sent to Miami Seaquarium, and the other four were dispersed internationally. With the exception of Lolita, all of these orcas died prematurely in captivity.

Around this time, the – now infamous – Taiji dolphin drives began. An annual event that runs September-April, local fishermen use high-speed boats to corral entire pods of dolphins into a secluded cove. Some of the more aesthetically pleasing dolphins are captured and sold into captivity while those that remain are slaughtered.

Regulating the Captive Cetacean Trade

In the early 1970’s, the public began to speak out against the captivity industry and the live-capture of orcas. Marine biologists also began to publicize their findings regarding the complexities of marine mammals.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972 prohibiting facilities from capturing marine mammals in U.S. waters and from importing marine mammals into the U.S. The MMPA protects many wild (and captive) animals from harm. However as of 1994, the MMPA was amended, stating that any entity offering “an education or conservation program based on professionally recognized standards of the public display community,” can, without legal repercussions, import and breed wild marine mammals.

After years of wild-capture expeditions, Washington became the first state to ban the capture of orcas in 1976. In what would become a historic trend for the park, SeaWorld opposed legislation meant to protect orcas from being captured in U.S. waters.

Internationally, orcas and other whales are still captured from the wild and sold into captivity. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulates the trade of orca whales and other dolphins, but because many species are considered data deficient and not classified across the board as endangered, their trade is not actively controlled. As it stands, CITES has a limited ability to regulate the trade of cetaceans across borders.

The Purpose of Captivity

SeaWorld and their affiliates have long defended holding marine mammals in captivity. They cite the educational benefit holding these wild animals captive serves the public. Although knowledge and education generate compassion and may ultimately benefit conservation efforts, there is very little evidence to substantiate claims that watching cetaceans perform elaborate routines and tricks does either of those things.

Ignoring the true history of how marine mammal parks got to where they are today does a disservice to the animals that have died in captivity, and only further perpetuates the ideology that marine mammals should be held captive for our entertainment.

Present Day

SeaWorld, as far as we know, has not captured or imported a wild orca or dolphin in years. In 1992, the federal government blocked the import of dolphins from Taiji to Six Flags Discovery Park in Vallejo, CA after a complaint was filed, citing the Marine Mammal Protection Act. A year later in 1993, three Pacific White-Sided dolphins were captured off the coast of California, but the public backlash from these captures made them the last in U.S. waters.

Without the ability to capture marine mammals from the wild, marine facilities rely heavily on breeding programs to increase their captive population. Former SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchison once stated that they could easily create more parks in other countries with only four or five whales, thanks to the success of their captive breeding program.

SeaWorld contends that they’re focused on the conservation and rehabilitation of marine mammals, but they’ve simultaneously created a breeding program, specifically of orcas, to spawn a surplus of animals that can be shipped back and forth between parks whenever necessary. The monetary value of these animals, it seems, voids any real commitment to conservation or animal welfare.

Moving Forward

While the tides against marine captivity are beginning to change in the U.S., the capture of marine mammals is still prevalent in other countries. Incidentally, SeaWorld has suggested they plan on expanding into international markets where people are less sensitive to marine captivity.

The only way we can prevent this from happening is by educating the public and raising awareness surrounding the plight of these captive marine mammals. Most importantly: Don’t buy a ticket.


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