Capture of Marine Life
Few visitors to dolphin shows or dolphinariums (aquariums with dolphins or other cetaceans) pause to consider where the animals came from. Those who do may believe they are rescued animals, or ones born in captivity. Though occasionally true, most often this is not the case. Breeding cetaceans in captivity is difficult, and most whales and dolphins currently in captivity were taken by force - not rescued - from the wild. Even for bottlenose dolphins and orcas - the only two species for which there has been some limited breeding success - self-sustaining breeding populations do not exist, and "new blood" is needed from the wild to supplement the gene pools.
Dolphins and other small whales are captured from the wild every year for confinement in aquariums. Captures are inhumane and often very violent, with animals routinely injured and killed in the struggle to subdue and separate an animal from his or her family unit. Fear, panic and flight are natural responses to any animal being hunted, chased, trapped and roughly handled. Mortality rates for bottlenose dolphins have been found to increase six-fold immediately after a capture.
There are several different techniques for capturing cetaceans, depending on the species and the depth of the water. The most popular capture method is by seine net - a large fishnet that is positioned vertically in the water column with weights at the bottom and floats at the top. The seine is used in conjunction with a high speed boat or boats to chase a pod of animals into shallow waters and encircle them. The net is then closed around the animals and pulled very tightly. The animals thrash around and often become entangled or drown. They are then manhandled into slings and hauled on board a capture vessel or herded into shallow sea cages.
Hoop nets are also used to capture cetaceans who bow-ride or swim close to boats. A hand-held hoop attached to a breakaway net is lowered over the head of the animal and when he moves away he becomes entangled and caught. The animal is then hoisted into the boat.
Probably the most brutal capture method is the drive hunt [link to small cetacean hunts], whereby pods of animals, once spotted, are chased and driven towards shore using boats and noise. Bays with narrow necks are typically chosen so that once close to shore, a net can be extended across the mouth, cutting off escape. Once confined, the exhausted animals are scrutinized for suitability for captivity while the rest are either butchered for meat or occasionally freed to an unknown fate.
Holding and Transport
Once captured, animals are held until they can be transported to a final destination. Holding conditions can be very crude and may consist of only a wet sling in a boat, or a small sea pen or makeshift tank lined with plastic and lacking a proper filtration system.
Small motor boats are usually used to move animals from the ocean to the shore. For short distances, animals are transported by trucks in wet slings. For long distances, animals are kept in slings and crated and moved by air. The physiological effects of confining and moving ocean dwelling animals great distances via pressurized airplanes is unknown.
Times Are Changing
Live cetacean captures still take place, especially as demand for dolphinariums increases in countries such as China with developing economies. However there is a growing awareness that capturing and keeping cetaceans in captivity is inhumane. Many countries have banned live captures in their waters, as well as imports, exports and/or captivity altogether.
In 2005 Chile banned outright the public display of most marine mammal species, and also their import, export, and capture from the wild. The same year, Costa Rica prohibited the capture and public display of all cetaceans. Cyprus, Hungary and India have banned live imports. Argentina has banned imports from the Russian Federation (notorious for beluga whale and orca captures). Vietnam and Malaysia have banned exports, with the latter also banning imports of all marine mammal species already found in Malaysia. Mexico has prohibited the import and export of all marine mammals.