Capture of Marine Wildlife

Dolphin show - Photo by Jenny B Lopez

Few visitors to dolphinariums (aquariums, theme parks, or tourist attractions with dolphins or other cetaceans used in shows or swim-with encounters) pause to consider where the animals came from. Those who do may believe they are rescued animals, or born in captivity. Though occasionally true, most often this is not the case. Captive breeding of cetaceans is difficult, and most whales and dolphins currently in captivity around the world were deliberately captured—not rescued—from the wild. Even for bottlenose dolphins, orcas and beluga whales—the three species for which there has been some breeding success—self-sustaining breeding populations do not exist, and "new blood" is needed from the wild to supplement gene pools.

Dolphins and other small whales are still captured from the wild for confinement in dolphinariums—despite what the dolphinariums say, this practice is not a thing of the past. 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 by any animal being hunted, chased, trapped and roughly handled. The mortality risk for bottlenose dolphins increases six-fold immediately after a capture.

Capture Methods

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 fish net 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 with the net. The net is then closed around the animals and pulled very tightly at the bottom, trapping the animals in a “purse.” The animals thrash around and may 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 dolphins who bow-ride or swim close to boats. A hand-held hoop attached to a breakaway net is lowered over the head and entangles the animal when he or she moves away. The dolphin is then hoisted into the boat.

Probably the most brutal capture method is the drive hunt, 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 and other products, 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. In Russia, there is a permanent sea-pen holding facility near the village of Nakhodka in the Okhotsk Sea, known as the 'whale jail.'

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 longer 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 ground transport or pressurized airplanes are largely unknown, but the stressful impacts are being documented by a growing number of studies.

Times Are Changing

Live cetacean captures still take place, especially as demand for dolphinariums increases in countries with developing economies such as China. 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 captive 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 captive display of all cetaceans. Cyprus, Hungary and Switzerland have banned live imports and in 2013 India banned the display of captive dolphins. 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 capture, import and export of all cetaceans.