The “Blackfish” Legacy: Captive Marine Mammal Industry Continues Decline

Toki in her tank at Miami Seaquarium
Photo by Ingrid Visser

Washington, D.C.—A decade after the documentary “Blackfish” examined the ethics and consequences of keeping orcas in captivity, marine theme parks and aquariums that feature cetaceans are struggling to remain relevant. According to a new report co-produced by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and World Animal Protection (WAP), public opposition in the West to confining cetaceans for display and entertainment has “passed the tipping point.”

The sixth edition of “The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity,” released today at Superpod 8, a gathering of orca advocates in Friday Harbor, Washington, is a comprehensive resource for the public, the media, policymakers, students, scientists, and others who wish to learn why marine mammals fundamentally do not belong in captivity.

Citing robust scientific evidence and ethical arguments, the 186-page report details how cetaceans and other marine mammals suffer in captivity. In small concrete enclosures that provide a tiny fraction of the space and virtually none of the stimulation found in their natural habitats, these animals are prevented from carrying out their most fundamental behaviors — roaming widely, hunting live prey, diving deep, and choosing their social grouping. The report concludes that “the entire captive experience for marine mammals is so impoverished and contrary to even the most basic elements of compassion that it should be rejected outright when its primary purpose is to entertain people.” 

The report is timely, as this month marks the 10th anniversary of “Blackfish.” The documentary focused on Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando who killed three people over the course of his three-plus decades in captivity, including his trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. It is also the 30th anniversary of “Free Willy,” a feature film about a boy who befriends a captive orca at an amusement park and finally releases him back to his family. The movie’s success led to the return of Keiko — the captive orca who played Willy — to his home waters in Iceland.

“I have been working on this campaign for 30 years, and the tragic and unnecessary death of Dawn Brancheau changed everything for the captive marine mammal industry,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, the report’s lead author and AWI’s marine mammal scientist. “The children who saw ‘Free Willy’ and were sensitized to this issue saw ‘Blackfish’ 20 years later as adults. They realized that they didn’t want to expose their own kids to marine theme parks that caused these magnificent beings to suffer.”

The debate over captive marine mammals has only intensified since the report was first produced in 1995. Media scrutiny of controversial captures, unnecessary deaths, and inhumane transports has exposed behind-the-scenes suffering and debunked the industry’s portrayal of contented animals performing happily for fish.

The majority of the public believes that marine mammals should not be kept in captivity unless there are major educational or scientific benefits. In 2016, SeaWorld announced that that it would phase out its orca displays by ending its breeding program and trade in orcas and holding no orcas at any newly constructed facilities. Canada passed historic legislation in 2019 to end the public display of captive cetaceans. Several tourism companies, including Virgin Holidays and TripAdvisor, have either ended or restricted their promotion of swim-with-dolphin attractions.

In response, the captive display industry has doubled down on claims that it is meaningfully contributing to education and conservation. In reality, the report notes, “facilities engaged in captive breeding tend merely to create a surplus of animals from non-endangered species who are not intended for release into the wild and are therefore only used to propagate the industry.”

The report’s sixth edition includes a new chapter that evaluates the recent proliferation of industry-endorsed research. These papers, focused primarily on captive cetaceans, purport to evaluate welfare, but fail to do so in an objective way. In 2018, the industry undertook an extensive research project —dubbed the “Cetacean Welfare Study” — involving more than 40 facilities holding dolphins and whales, and began publishing its results in 2020. A special issue of the peer-reviewed journal PLOS One was published in 2021, presenting nine papers from this work. However, the study resulted in few practical suggestions for improving welfare, and at no time questioned the need for captive environments or the value of having cetaceans on public display.

“This report makes it very clear: All marine mammals are sentient beings who can experience emotions, pain, and pleasure,” said Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, head of wildlife research and animal welfare at WAP. “In captivity, they show symptoms of being depressed and often develop stereotypic behaviours, ranging from repetitive motions to harmful behaviours. We will continue to fight for the thousands of cetaceans who continue to suffer in captivity, and to prevent more animals being bred or captured for the display industries.” 

Other highlights of the report:

  • Opposition to the public display of cetaceans has become more mainstream in the West, as more people understand that the trade in live marine mammals compromises their welfare and harms wild populations and habitat. “However, the East, particularly Asia and Russia, is lagging decades behind, still awaiting its ‘Blackfish’ moment.”
  • Post-Blackfish, a number of promising initiatives have emerged within local and national legislatures in several countries. In the US Congress, the Strengthening Welfare in Marine Settings (SWIMS) Act has been introduced. This bill would end the future capture and breeding of orcas, belugas, pilot whales, and false killer whales in the United States.
  • Russia, at least temporarily, has ended its captures of orcas and belugas for public display, depriving the industry of the last remaining source for these species.
Media Contact Information

Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
[email protected], (202) 446-2128

The Animal Welfare Institute ( is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.

World Animal Protection (formerly known as the World Society for the Protection of Animals) has moved the world to protect animals for the last 50 years. World Animal Protection works to give animals a better life. Its activities include working with companies to ensure high standards of welfare for the animals in their care, working with governments and other stakeholders to prevent wild animals being cruelly traded, trapped or killed, and saving the lives of animals and the livelihoods of the people who depend on them in disaster situations. World Animal Protection influences decision makers to put animals on the global agenda, and it inspires people to protect animals and to change animals’ lives for the better. More information on World Animal Protection can be found at: