Panel Raises Orca Captivity Questions at Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference

The Society for Marine Mammalogy’s 20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals—the world’s largest gathering of marine mammal scientists—was held in Dunedin, New Zealand, the week of December 9, 2013. At least 1,100 researchers and conservationists listened to hundreds of talks and read dozens of posters on marine mammal biology, behavior, conservation and policy.

For the first time, they also confronted the controversy surrounding the captive display of one of the ocean’s largest (and certainly one of its most charismatic) predators—the orca. Even the academic, ivory tower Society could not escape the spotlight focused on captive orcas by David Kirby’s book, Death at SeaWorld, and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary, Blackfish. The conference hosted an evening panel discussion, with six experts addressing questions from conference attendees on various scientific aspects of holding these whales in (as zoos like to say) “human care.” Two (AWI’s Dr. Naomi Rose and the University of Victoria’s Dr. David Duffus) were openly anti-captivity. Three were more or less neutral (Drs. Doug DeMaster with NOAA, Mark Orams with Auckland University of Technology, and Robin Baird with Cascadia Research) and one, Dr. Judy St. Leger, was a veterinarian at SeaWorld.

The Society for Marine Mammalogy is now 40 years old, but it is far behind the general public when it comes to addressing the ethical questions raised by keeping orcas in concrete tanks. Astonishingly, it is also out of date regarding the scientific aspects of confining these large, socially complex, intelligent, and long-lived animals in artificial enclosures.

The panel members’ responses made it clear that very little welfare science on captive orcas has come out of places like SeaWorld since the company pioneered the species’ display in 1965; even less has been published by independent researchers. The dearth of outside research has occurred not from lack of will but lack of access—SeaWorld has been reluctant to allow non-industry researchers to study its orcas. Dr. St. Leger suggested that such access might increase in the future. (She could hardly do otherwise in front of the Society!)

The Society’s board hinted prior to the conference that members had complained that the planned panel discussion on orca captivity “lacked credibility.” The actual attendance at the event, however, and the reactions of the audience to the panel members’ responses strongly suggested otherwise. While the “pro-captivity” perspective was well represented (notably in the front row seats of the event venue), the majority of the audience—at least 350 people, a full third of the conference attendees—seemed sympathetic to the anti-captivity point of view, judging by which comments they chose to applaud.

Hosting an evening panel discussion on the welfare of captive orcas is the first, small step toward dragging the Society into the 21st century on the issue of keeping marine mammals—especially cetaceans—in captivity for entertainment and “education.” The Society, founded by researchers from the public display industry in the 1970s, is averse to looking inward and taking a stand on controversial topics. In 2015, the biennial conference will be in San Francisco—SeaWorld’s “back yard.” The next step will be to propose a formal workshop to examine closely the science on captive orca welfare. Stay tuned.

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