Grim Conditions for China's Captive Cetaceans

On December 4, 2015, the China Cetacean Alliance (CCA) launched a major campaign to raise public awareness of the suffering faced by the cetaceans held captive in China. AWI is a founding member of the CCA, along with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Marine Connection, and the Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society, as well as animal and environmental groups in Taiwan and mainland China.

The campaign launch occurred via a media event in Beijing, during which the CCA introduced a report, available in both Chinese and English, entitled Ocean Theme Parks: A Look Inside China’s Growing Captive Cetacean Industry (available on AWI’s website at www.awionline.org/cca). The report is based on an investigation conducted during 2015 and includes detailed information on all known captive cetacean facilities in China.

China is one of the few countries where the display of captive cetaceans is on the rise. China has 39 operational cetacean display facilities, with at least 16 more under construction. These facilities hold bottlenose dolphins, beluga whales, finless porpoises, and white-sided dolphins, as well as seven other cetacean species. Most disturbingly, one facility, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Guangdong Province, is holding nine orcas, although to date none have been put on public display. The orca stadium is apparently still under construction, but the government has confirmed that the orcas were imported by Chimelong. The whales were captured in the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia and imported between 2013 and early 2015. Where they are being held and under what conditions is unknown; it is not even clear if all are still alive.

In China, little if any successful breeding is occurring, due almost certainly to poor holding conditions and a lack of staff expertise. Virtually all of the almost 500 cetaceans the CCA was able to inventory—via on-site facility visits, web searches, and research of media accounts and trade databases—have been captured from the wild. The primary sources are Taiji, Japan, from the hunts made infamous in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, and Russia, where all of China’s belugas and orcas originated.

The official regulations governing the care and maintenance of captive cetaceans in China are minimal. On paper, they are on a par with those of some other under-regulated jurisdictions; in practice, the conditions of China’s captive cetacean enclosures are exceptionally poor and outdated. The CCA’s investigator visited 14 facilities and found, among other problems, incompatible species being held together (for example, Arctic belugas in the same tank as temperate/tropical bottlenose dolphins); very small tanks holding multiple cetaceans; extremely loud music; dolphins forced to hold “photo-op” poses with visitors on pool decks for protracted periods; and plenty of rust and decaying infrastructure. Many of the facilities in China are essentially brand new, built within the past 5–10 years, but the infrastructure and even the shows have the look and feel of whale and dolphin parks from the 1950s and 1960s in the West. Construction standards appear poor.

The situation is very different in Taiwan (see box), where—through advocacy and activism over the past two or so decades—the industry has been successfully confronted. There, a constructive dialog between NGOs and the industry may achieve a captive cetacean–free future sooner than later. In China, the debate has barely started, so the CCA must raise public awareness first, before dialog with the industry and the government can begin.

Captive Cetacean Facilities in Taiwan

Currently, Taiwan has three captive cetacean facilities. The municipality of Yehliu, just north of Taipei, has been the home of Ocean World for over 30 years. The town of Hualien, in the middle of the island’s eastern coast, has Farglory Ocean Park, which was built in the early 2000s. Pingtung, in the far south, hosts the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium (NMMBA), which has displayed cetaceans for about 15 years.

Ocean World is the oldest (and smallest) of the three facilities in Taiwan. Its design is correspondingly old-fashioned and outdated. The main tank is relatively small and there are several very small, roughly circular holding tanks behind the stage. There is no shade over any of them. One holding tank, with four dolphins, is not connected to the rest of the enclosure complex at all, and these dolphins can enter the rest of the complex only by being removed from the water entirely. The show is also outdated—a circus act complete with acrobatic clowns. The 11 bottlenose dolphins at Ocean World were captured locally or are captive-born. It is possible this facility could transition to one focusing on cetacean rescue and rehabilitation and aquarium exhibits that feature the natural history of the region, rather than circus-like entertainment.

Farglory Ocean Park is a theme park, with rides, an arcade, and numerous animal exhibits, including a fairly educational aquarium and museum area. The dolphin show has extraordinarily loud music and sound effects, with a bank of amplifiers overhead that make it uncomfortable for the audience, let alone the animals. However, it was built to fairly modern specifications and does have shade protecting the animals from the relentless tropical sun. The eight cetaceans at Farglory came from the Japanese drive hunt and, probably not coincidentally, as the drive hunts in Japan are violent and traumatizing affairs, the facility has had no breeding success to date. Taiwanese NGOs recently succeeded in preventing an import of additional dolphins from Japan. This facility too has the potential to transition to cetacean rescue and rehabilitation, and given its other attractions, could still retain its identity as a theme park.

The NMMBA is a large campus with several buildings, including state-of-the-art museum and aquarium exhibits, research facilities, and dormitories for students and researchers. The three belugas it houses are the last of 10 imported from Russia in the early and mid-2000s and the facility does not intend to breed or replace them. It no longer has a show—visitors simply view the whales in an underwater gallery and observe feeding times. Within the next few years, presumably, the NMMBA will no longer have any cetaceans.