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Over the past several years, the controversy surrounding marine mammals in captivity has intensified, due in large part to the 2013 documentary Blackfish which shined the light on the bleak lives of captive killer whales.
That debate continues with the release today at ITB Berlin of the fifth edition of The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity.
The report, from World Animal Protection and the Animal Welfare Institute, is based on robust scientific evidence and lays out ethical arguments regarding the behind-the-scenes realities for marine animals at zoos, aquariums, and marine parks.
In particular, the latest update of the report notes that thousands of marine mammals including dolphins and small whales are living in captivity around the world. Live captures are hardly a thing of the past. More marine mammals are taken from the wild and sold into captivity each year.
The venues driving this industry, notes the report, cause immense suffering at every stage of the animal's life, from capture to transportation, to a lifelong existence in small barren tanks that cause severe stress for marine mammals.
In fact, bottlenose dolphins are six times more likely to die immediately after capture from the wild and transfer between facilities. Annual mortality rates for orcas have improved over the years, but they still don't match healthy populations in the wild.
Popular hotspots where marine mammals continue to be captured include Russia (belugas and orcas) and Japan (multiple dolphin species) with the principal market being China, where shockingly the number of ocean theme parks has jumped from 39 in 2015 to 76 in early 2019.
"A lifetime in captivity for marine mammals such as dolphins is so contrary to their natural environment, it is simply no life at all," said Ben Williamson, U.S. Programs Director at World Animal Protection. "Tourists and the global travel industry provide demand for existing and new captive marine mammal facilities, which is why we have chosen to launch the report at one of the world's biggest travel shows. The arguments and evidence of suffering is here in black and white for travel companies to see."
The report's lead author is Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist, who points out that marine mammals simply cannot thrive in captivity. Almost all marine mammal species, says Rose, are naturally wide-ranging predators, yet in captivity they live in barren concrete boxes or small sea pen corrals.
"The public display industry continues to insist that marine mammal exhibits serve a valuable conservation function, people learn important information from seeing live animals and captive marine mammals live a good life," states the report's overview. "Animal protection groups and a growing number of scientists counter that the lives of captive marine mammals are impoverished, people do not receive an accurate picture of a species from captive representatives and the trade in live marine mammals negatively affects populations and habitats."
The report also notes that while some facilities promote themselves as conservation centers, the reality is that very few facilities are actively involved in substantial conservation efforts.
First produced in 1995, the release of the updated report from World Animal Protection and the Animal Welfare Institute comes on the heels of the recent announcement by Dolphinaris Arizona that it will close its dolphin exhibit after four dolphins died there in less than 18 months.
Additional key Highlights from the report include:
-While a shift is well underway in the West, with many countries prohibiting the display or breeding of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) for entertainment or banning and restricting the trade in live cetaceans, live capture of free-ranging marine mammals, particularly cetaceans, continues.
-Most studies using marine mammals in public display facilities have been focused on improving captive care and maintenance practices in order to increase animal life spans and reproductive output. Very few studies using marine mammals in public display facilities address crucial conservation questions and even fewer address animal welfare.
-The inadequate conditions of captive marine mammals have adverse impacts on their welfare. Most marine mammals are wide-ranging predators; confinement in small tanks or pens leads to stress, which, in turn, leads to a number of health problems, neurotic behaviors, and abnormal levels of aggression.
-With any marine mammal exhibit, the needs of the visiting public come before the needs of the animals. Enclosures are designed to make animals readily visible, not necessarily comfortable.
If there is any good news in the report, it is that concern about swimmer safety and dolphin welfare has led several tourism companies, including TripAdvisor and Virgin Holidays, to end or restrict their promotion of swim-with dolphin attractions.
Mia Taylor is an award-winning journalist who has two decades of experience. Most recently she worked as a staff writer for...
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