Cetacean Shows: Not Quite so Captivating

The past three years have seen considerable progress on the campaign to end the display of captive cetaceans. The change appears to date from the tragic death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by the orca Tilikum. Sadly, it is just such a calamity that too often serves as the catalyst for reform.

In August 2010, SeaWorld was cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the death of Brancheau and immediately challenged the citation in court. Nine days of testimony in autumn 2011 led to a May 2012 ruling against SeaWorld, as the judge ordered the company to implement the abatements prescribed by OSHA. (See Summer 2012 AWI Quarterly.) SeaWorld has appealed this ruling; the appeals court will hear oral arguments this November.

Meanwhile, in May 2013, India banned the establishment of dolphinariums anywhere in the country. Proposals to build new dolphinariums had been submitted in various cities by local and international entrepreneurs. A global effort to alert the Indian government about the welfare concerns associated with dolphinariums led to this historic ban.

In South Korea, three illegally captured bottlenose dolphins were successfully released back into the wild in July after spending four years in captivity. The dolphins were caught in fishing traps around the island of Jeju, where there is a small, resident dolphin population. When the captures were challenged in court by local animal groups, the mayor of Seoul convened a committee of stakeholders to return the animals to their home. After several weeks in a sea pen, the dolphins were released. Two were tagged and all are being tracked and have reintegrated into established pods.

Back in the United States, the National Marine Fisheries Service, after a tidal wave of protest against an import request by Georgia Aquarium for 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia, denied this request in August 2013 (See page 16.)

Finally, the book Death at SeaWorld by David Kirby (reviewed in the Fall 2012 AWI Quarterly) and the documentary Blackfish (reviewed in the Summer 2013 AWI Quarterly) have pushed this debate into the mainstream of public consciousness. Death at SeaWorld received universal praise for its in-depth coverage of the issue, and there is Oscar buzz around Blackfish.

Not only governments and the public are grappling with the question of whether cetaceans belong in captivity; the marine mammal scientific community, which has long tried to ignore the elephant—or orca—in the room, is at last addressing the issue. The Society for Marine Mammalogy will host an evening panel discussion at its 20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in December in New Zealand, which represents the first time this academic society has debated the question.

AWI and its coalition partners have been actively involved in all of these successes. Victory, however, remains on the horizon, not immediately at hand. The marine theme park industry continues to sell tickets to its cetacean shows—lots of them. Cetaceans are still being torn from their homes and families and pressed into service as “entertainers” within sterile, cramped environs. While the tide of public opinion is turning, there is more to do.

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