Before we look at the effects of captivity on marine mammals, it is important to understand where the animals come from.
Aquariums would like you to think that all of their animals come from natural births within their populations. This is far from the truth.
Live capture of Orca Whales
The first orca capture was in 1964 for The Vancouver Aquarium. Initially sent to kill an orca to be stuffed and put on display in the British Columbia Hall, a boat harpooned a young orca that did not immediately die. Despite the danger, his family tried to free him.
They continually pushed him to the surface to help him breathe; as he let out deafening distress calls. Remaining alive, the captured orca was shot several times with a gun but still did not die.
The crew then decided to keep him alive for display. They towed him by the attached harpoon for sixteen hours, bleeding and terrified, to the Vancouver Aquarium.
After 18 months alone in captivity he died; most likely due to the poor living conditions in captivity.
Before the Marine Mammal Protection act of 1972 (which banned live-capture of marine mammals), around 300 orcas were captured in British Columbia and Washington State waters.
Baby orcas were the target, their small size made transportation much easier and less costly.
As the babies were corralled into nets, their family members stayed close and tried to free them. Many of the adult orcas became trapped in the nets, which resulted in over a dozen deaths.
After one of the captures in Washington State, crew members were instructed to sink the bodies of the dead orcas to hide the evidence.
SeaWorld was directly involved in these dealings. Half of the animals captured in Puget Sound were sent to SeaWorld parks.
In 1976, Washington State sued SeaWorld for these violent acts.
The Southern Resident orca population in the Pacific Northwest is currently endangered.
According to The National Marine Fisheries Service, “The capture of killer whales for public display during the 1970s likely depressed their population size and altered the population characteristics sufficiently to severely affect their reproduction and persistence.”
To this day, orca capture remains a very lucrative business in other parts of the world. The country of Russia condones the practice.
They publicly suggest live capture quotas each year, even though the number of captures is not enforced. With a price tag of $600,000, a wild-caught orca is a tempting prize for any hunter or fisherman.
Live Capture of Beluga Whales
Belugas (white whales) have a much longer history in captivity than orcas. The live-capture of beluga whales started over 150 years ago.
In August 2013, an application was submitted by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta for the transfer of 18 live-caught belugas for public display. The application stated plans to transfer 11 of the whales to SeaWorld parks.
The request was denied by the Federal Government because of the impact it would have on the local wild population.
In response, The Georgia Aquarium posted a petition on their website calling for the support of beluga captures stating that, “Unfortunately, with fewer than 35 belugas in accredited aquariums in North America, this population of animals in human care is facing certain extinction. That’s because there is simply not enough genetic diversity to promote healthy breeding, meaning that within a few decades, according to experts, the public will lose touch with these magnificent mammals.”
Basically, the petition is asking for support of the depletion and destruction of wild beluga populations so that more can be kept in captivity for breeding purposes.
Despite the admitted lack of genetic diversity in their belugas, The Georgia Aquarium continually breeds the same animals.
The petition fails to mention that since opening in 2005, 50% of the beluga population at The Georgia Aquarium has died; including a 5-day old calf.
With such dismal survival statistics, why is The Georgia Aquarium so desperate to acquire more belugas?
The “Beluga & Friends” two hour interactive experience is an intimate animal interaction training session, costing $179.95 per person.
The experience is offered twice daily to eight people at a time, bringing in over 1 million dollars of revenue for the aquarium each year.
Despite all of the negative results of these animals being kept in captivity, The Georgia Aquarium not only continues to display them, but seeks to obtain more; all in the name of profit.
Live capture of Dolphins
Dolphins, just like orcas, are highly intelligent and self-aware animals with strong social bonds.
The live-capture of dolphins for public display is ongoing. It is the most bloody and violent of all of the marine mammal capture practices. Each year over 20,000 dolphins are killed in Japan.
The center of the dolphin capture and trade industry is a small coastal town called Taiji.
Here fishermen herd large pods of dolphins into a cove where they are slaughtered in bloody waters.
After watching their families die a slow and painful death, a lucky few (usually the cute and young) are hand-picked for captivity by dolphin trainers.
These dolphins are trained, and then shipped all over the world to aquariums and swim with dolphin programs.
Some are sent to the near-by Taiji Whale Museum, where you can actually eat dolphin meat while you watch the dolphins perform.
The fishermen of Taiji claim that the hunt is part of their history and cultural tradition; however, these hunts started less than 50 years ago in 1969.
It is important to note that the 1960’s marked the initial boom of aquariums, and the subsequent demand for captive dolphins.
In Taiji a fisherman makes around $600 for a dolphin used for food, but can receive as much as $300,000 for a live dolphin used for entertainment.
The claim that the purpose of the hunt is to meet the demand for dolphin meat is also false. Dolphin meat contains highly toxic levels of mercury.
Deemed “toxic waste”, it is ten times more toxic than the health ministry’s advised level.
To continue justifying the hunt of dolphins, dolphin meat is sold in grocery stores. The meat is mislabeled as the much pricier delicacy, whale meat.
The Taiji fishing cooperative even donated dolphin meat to local schools; feeding the toxic meat to small children. This went on for years until concerned councilmen, who were also parents, spoke out against it.
It is illegal to import a dolphin to the US that has been caught in the wild, however, even with current regulations in place, there is a very good possibility that many dolphins imported into the US were live caught.
Even if a dolphin was captive bred, its family tree can most likely be traced back to an animal captured in Taiji.