The Global Captivity Challenge

In mid-October 2003 the Summerlee Foundation teamed up with Earth Island Institute to convene a three day workshop in San Francisco with one focus-ending the international business of taking whales and dolphins from their families to provide human entertainment. Forty-five of the most energetic activists from around the world attended to share stories of victory and failure, to take stock of the current situation, and to strategize. They agreed on long term goals: to stop any further captures anywhere in the world, rehabilitate and release all whales and dolphins possible, and provide a non-performing retirement sea-pen for those unable to make the leap to freedom.

Those attending have had some remarkable successes over the last twenty years. There are now no captive cetaceans in Great Britain. Traveling dolphin shows that once cruised the US are gone. The number of US facilities with captives has shrunk by about half. There is no longer a capture quota set by the National Marine Fisheries Service for each small coastal area around Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Planned captures and transfers have been thwarted by quick attention by dedicated campaigners.

But not all of the news is so rosy. Whereas watching cetaceans perform in captivity seems to be losing its cachet, swim-with-the-dolphins and dolphin-assisted therapy programs are taking off like rockets, especially in the Caribbean and Asia. With many facilities boasting of a long waiting list of tourists eager to pay $100 an hour to be nuzzled and pulled through the water by a dolphin, the economic inducement for hotels and amusement parks has become enormous. New facilities either planned or in operation are being challenged in Antigua, Vietnam, Mexico, Jamaica, Singapore, the Bahamas and Dominica through contacts with government officials, organizing local folk, and going after the financial backers. Two of the workshop attendees were responsible for blowing the whistle on the apparently illegal purchase of dolphins from Cuba to supply swim-with programs in the Caribbean islands and Cancun, Mexico. Both Dolphin Discovery and Dolphin Fantaseas are run by Americans. Their purchase of Cuban dolphins is now under investigation.

The group realized the need for a global educational campaign to convince tourists that captive facilities are intrinsically cruel-that no captive space will ever be big enough for a whale or dolphin-and that by financing these facilities we are bankrolling the harming of creatures we love. New ventures were created to turn the tide: the forming and funding of quick response teams able to travel in a moment's time to the site of a new capture or slaughter to document these atrocities and inform the public, and the adoption of a central information gathering and dispersal system for sharing early alerts.

Now comes the hard work of translating good ideas into free dolphins and whales.