Are cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) safer in captivity than in the wild?
A ludicrous question? Perhaps, but one that should direct our attention to the state of our planet, and of caretaking and stewardship of captive, non-human animals.
Anti-captivity and animal rights advocates, shareholders, and organizations such as all-volunteer nonprofit Cetacean Society International have cause to celebrate following the March 17 announcement about the partnership between SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment the Humane Society of the US to end captive orca breeding and phase out theatrical orca whale shows. Chief executive officer and president Joel Manby wrote an Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times asserting the rationale for the unprecedented, historic shift: “Americans’ attitudes about orcas have changed dramatically…now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create…”
This monumental move to transform SeaWorld’s business model is worthy of praise and commemoration as, according to Manby, the remaining orcas“… will be the last generation of orcas in SeaWorld’s care.” Wild-captured or born in captivity, Manby promises the more than twenty SeaWorld orcas will continue to “receive the highest-quality care, based on the latest advances in marine veterinary medicine, science and zoological best practices…” SeaWorld is an undeniable force for good in rescue operations, one of the largest in the world, and has committed to increase the work and focus in this area so that stranded marine mammals receive rehabilitation and care. Stocks have risen since the announcement.
Well-deserved congratulations aside, skeptics express relentless concern about the remaining marine mammals in captivity including but not limited to dolphins and belugas, and remind the world of the four people killed and 100+ aggressive acts by captive orcas, the innumerable animals who have died in capture and captivity (only 20 of the 145 wild orcas taken into captivity are alive today) ; sinking SeaWorld stock prices since the release of the documentary Blackfish, failed pregnancies and premature births/deaths, the captive orcas around the world, for example, wild caught Kiska in Canada; Morgan in Loro Parque, Spain; Kshamenk in Mundo Marino, Argentina; Lolita at Miami Seaquarium (deemed most eligible for release to a more natural environment by experts) – and most regrettable, the imminent death of beloved and infamous Tilikum, who, at the time of this writing, languishes in a med pool in SeaWorld Orlando, unresponsive to treatment for a bacterial lung infection. Little has been reported about SeaWorld’s expansion into the Asian and Middle East markets, but the probability is troubling.
Nevertheless, partnerships, collaborations and progress in captive animal care are to be applauded. Globally, groups and individuals have been working tirelessly in anticipation of the retirement of eligible orcas to a sanctuary or sea pen facility. Millions continue to call for the end of orca captivity, full stop. SeaWorld’s announcement is certainly a positive step forward, but it would be wise to also use this momentum to move toward education about and activism for protection of our planet’s dwindling natural resources, as Manby claims will be done: “…we are partnering with the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest and most effective animal protection and advocacy organization. Together, we will work against commercial whaling and seal hunts, shark finning and ocean pollution.”
The scope of work in animal protection and environmental advocacy is massive. Again, Manby joins environmentalists and advocates by acknowledging the need for education, energy and difficult decisions “… to halt and reverse the exploitation of wild places and the extinction of wild species.”
Is protection for wild orcas and other marine mammals alone unattainable? According to an article published online January, 2016, PCB pollution continues to impact populations of orcas and other dolphins in European waters, cetacean populations in the Northeast Atlantic and the Mediterranean are declining faster than they can recover. The meta-analysis of European data collected from 1990-2012 showed that several cetacean species have very high mean blubber polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) concentrations which are likely the cause of population declines and suppression of population recovery. Even though the US Congress banned PCB production in 1979 and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants banned it in 2001, because of PCBs’ environmental toxicity and classification as a persistent organic pollutant, and “despite regulations and mitigation measures to reduce PCB pollution, their biomagnification in marine food webs continues to cause severe impacts among cetacean top predators in European seas.” The study found three out of four species: striped dolphins (SDs), bottlenose dolphins (BNDs) and orcas, or killer whales (KWs) – had mean PCB levels that markedly exceeded all known marine mammal PCB toxicity thresholds.
PCBs are not the only poison in the ocean. Roger Payne, founder and president of Ocean Alliance, presented to the International Whaling Commission annual meeting in 2010, reporting results of studies of cells from sperm whales indicate pollution is reaching the farthest corners of the oceans. Sperm whales like CONNY – the magnificent, one-of-a-kind life-size model built in 1976 by the Connecticut Cetacean Society (now Cetacean Society International) on the grounds of The Children’s Museum — are at risk worldwide. Listed as Vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List, populations of these deep-diving toothed whales are scant and require further analyses. In addition, efforts to assess the conservation status of sperm whales and the impact of whaling, including social disruption, on current populations are compromised due to the lack of a good model of sperm whale population structure Global population is estimated to be in the 100,000s, significantly less than pre-whaling numbers which may have been as high as 1,100,000. The greatest threat to Sperm whales had been extensive commercial hunting, particularly of large males, but that has virtually ended although small-scale fisheries still exist in Japan and Indonesia. A number of threats still remain, including entanglement in fishing gear (especially gill nets), collisions with ships, ingestion of marine debris, and ocean contaminants. Heavily depleted populations from whaling days have still not recovered.
The IUCN report reflects studies through approximately 2008, omitting a wealth of science about events from then until now. Between January 9 and February 4, 2016, 29 sperm whales stranded and died on North Sea beaches in Netherlands, France, Britain and Germany, the largest mortality event on record. Mass strandings of sperm whales are not uncommon in the region, with records of sightings dating back to the 16th century. Multiple explanations have been offered, such as the whales searching for food in shallow waters (sperm whales can dive as deep as two miles to find food), disorientation, starvation, depletion of prey -giant squid and octopus, warming of the world’s ocean, and noise from underwater bomb explosions and seismic surveys. Little has been said about a possible culprit – noise from offshore wind farms. Because that area has the world’s largest concentration of offshore wind turbines, it is reasonable to infer that the noise created by the turbines can interfere with whales’ sonar, communication and navigation and could be one cause. Investigation is ongoing.
There is overwhelming evidence that our ocean is in peril, and the health and safety of marine animals is in jeopardy like no other time in history. Regardless, good people continue to do great things to protect and preserve our increasingly endangered cetaceans.
Learn more about CONNY, Cetacean Society International and the World Cetacean Alliance by visiting www.csiwhalesalive.org and www.worldcetaceanalliance.org or check out our Facebook pages.
Patricia Sullivan MS Ed. Education Director, Cetacean Society International
Co-Chair, Policy, Advocacy and Campaigning Working Group of the World Cetacean Alliance
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Children's Museum.