Captivity (marine mammals)


I. The Debate

The debate over the ethics of marine mammals in captivity is essentially about cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and i porpoises) because other marine mammals such as seals and sea lions do not inspire the same passion as whales and dolphins. The allure of cetaceans is so powerful that they are now a symbol of the animal liberation movement. This ongoing debate over whether cetaceans should be kept in captivity is relatively recent in contrast to the history of human/marine mammal interactions. For centuries, human interest in marine mammals was based on the commercial value of killing seals and whales for oil, meat, and hides. The larger animals represented greater profit, so small marine mammals such as dolphins were mostly considered to be pests to fishermen. Occasional reports of marine mammals being kept in captivity as curiosities are scattered throughout history: polar bears were kept by Scandinavian rulers prior to the Middle Ages; a killer whale (Orcinus orca) that had been live stranded was kept and used for sport by Roman guards during the first century a.d.; and seals were kept in menageries by the 18th century. In the mid-1800s, RT. Barnum displayed belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) and bottlenose dolphins (Tnrsiops truncatus) in his New York museum for a short time, and in the late 1800s, the Brighton Aquarium in England displayed harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) for several months. A new era of modern marine mammal exhibits began in the late 1930s, when Marine Studios at Marineland opened in Florida.

At first, marine mammal facilities were quite popular. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the number of aquaria and zoological parks displaying marine mammals increased rapidly to meet public demand, especially in Europe, North America, and Australasia. Simultaneously, technology and methods for the capture, transport, and maintenance of marine mammals improved with increasing knowledge and experience. Scientists took advantage of the availability of the animals at these facilities to conduct groundbreaking research on dolphin acoustics, human/dolphin communication, dolphin brain function, hearing and echolocation, and behavior. Soon the public became more familiar with dolphins through shows at aquaria and from a popular TV show called “Flipper” in which a dolphin was portrayed as an intelligent family pet. With this heightened awareness, the public began to understand that dolphins were not large fish, but intelligent and friendly marine mammals. However, the image transformation inspired by animals at marine mammal facilities would soon become a public relations nightmare for the industry that first made these animals popular.

II. The Impact

The boom in aquaria and oceanaria experienced through the 1970s came to a near halt during the mid-1980s due to the growing debate over keeping cetaceans in human care. Pressure and sometimes inaccurate information from the animal rights lobby forced the closure of some existing facilities and prevented some new facilities from being opened. While the 1990s saw a decline in the number of facilities keeping cetaceans in Australia and some parts of Europe, there was an increase in the establishment of new marine mammal facilities in other parts of the world such as Asia and South America where there was little to no animal activist movement.

Compared with most terrestrial mammals, marine mammals are expensive and difficult to maintain in captivity. They require a good deal of logistical support, such as high-quality food sources, specialized medical care, large enclosures, and expensive water-quality maintenance systems. Cetaceans and sirenians (manatees and dugongs), being wholly aquatic, present greater logistic difficulties than other marine mammals. A few species predominate at these facilities because they have shown greater success in human care. Of these animals, those most often used in public performances include bottlenose dolphins, belugas or killer whales, and California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), whereas phocids such as harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), polar bears (Ursus maritimus), sea otters (En-hydra lutris), and sirenians are more typically maintained in exhibits. While a few facilities, especially those in developing countries, have fallen short of being able to maintain the highest standards of operation, most modern facilities successfully meet these challenges. However, there is word that many oceanaria are being planned to be built outside the control of effective regulations in the coming years—more than 13 in China alone. There is concern that many capture and holding facilities that are effectively unregulated and pretty much undercover are being built in the Philippines, Indonesia, and other places to supply the resulting demand for animals. It is on these types of facilities that we should focus.

Even if for only short periods of time, almost every species of marine mammal other than most of the great whales have been maintained at a marine mammal facility at some point. Animals are kept captive for different reasons: display in zoos and aquaria; military work; scientific research; and temporary maintenance for rehabilitation for injured or sick animals, although these categories are not mutually exclusive. Size and temperament are generally the limiting factors in keeping some marine mammal species for long periods of time. Most are kept in zoos or aquaria; some live in open ocean enclosures. However, many commercial facilities with cetaceans are not traditional zoological gardens but marine parks where there tends to be more emphasis on performances by animals. (Temporary restraint from a few minutes to hours for research purposes is not considered as captivity here.)

III. Regulations for Collection, Care, and Maintenance

A. International Regulations

In general, regulations dealing with marine mammals in human care cover collection, care and maintenance of animals, and movements of animals between countries. The extent to which existing laws are administered and enforced varies internationally. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is the central international instrument for the protection of whales; however, its effectiveness has been hotly debated. Both the pro-whaling and the anti-whaling factions try to load the IWC to influence the outcome of voting, and qualifying animal activist groups are allowed to attend and lobby at annual IWC meetings.

The major instrument regulating the international trade in captive cetaceans is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Most cetaceans are listed in topic, which provides a means of regulating and monitoring trade for species not threatened with extinction but which are vulnerable to overuse. This listing allows for international trade with properly issued permits. The smaller species/ subspecies include the baiji or Chinese river dolphin ( vexillifer), Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica gangetica), Indus River dolphin (Platanista g. minor), tucuxi (Sotalia fluviatilis), Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin (Sotisa chinen-sis), Atlantic humpback dolphin (Sousa teuszii), finless porpoise (Neophocaena phocaenoides), and the vaquita (Phocoena sinus).  Most nations keeping marine mammals in captivity are signatories to CITES. International agreements can regulate capture, but most trade in wild-caught animals now comes from a few nations with few or no regulations on capture, or with regulations that are ignored. International pressure on some nations (e.g., Iceland in 1989) has resulted in the closure of their capture industry.

In the United States, Congress passed unprecedented regulatory legislation in 1972 to bring under its protection all marine mammals within the borders of its jurisdiction. The legislation was called the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Its intent was to protect marine mammals from human actions (predominantly fishing) that lead to extinction. However, the MMPA specifically authorized the collection of animals from the wild for scientific research and public display and education. Depending on the species involved, the collection of marine mammals is governed by a permit process administered by either the National Marine Fisheries Service or the Fish and Wildlife Service. The standards for the maintenance of marine mammals in research or public display facilities are established and monitored by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service under the U.S. Animal Welfare Act, and all marine mammal-related activities are monitored by the presidentially appointed Marine Mammal Commission. While collection is still permitted in the United States, there have not been any bottlenose dolphins collected for U.S. facilities since 1989 due to a self-imposed moratorium observed by the members of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums on the collection of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from the Gulf of Mexico. In addition, there is a changing trend regarding holding and breeding botdenose dolphins in North America. In 1976, 94% of the population of bottlenose dolphins were wild caught while 6% were captive born. From 1989 to 1996, no wild-caught animals were added to the captive population; all additions were a result of successful breeding programs. In 1996, 44% of bottlenose dolphins in North American facilities were captive born.

Several countries have legislated regulations or guidelines to govern the collection and keeping of marine mammals since 1972. New Zealand passed a MMPA in 1978, and in 1980, Australia passed the Whale Protection Act of Australia. In Australia, the state of Victoria banned the issuance of permits for keeping cetaceans for display or collecting them for export. Here, legislation does not absolutely preclude issuing a permit for the capture of free-ranging animals; however, general government policy, the legal requirement for public comment on an application for capture, and the need for signed Ministerial approval for capture permits mean that it is highly unlikely that permits will be issued. Canada developed guidelines that forbid the capture of killer whales and gives priority to Canadian institutions in considering permits for the capture of belugas. Legislation can interact with government policy and public opinion to affect the capture industry. For example, guidelines established in some countries such as the United Kingdom do not specifically prohibit the collection and display of marine mammals, but they effectively force closure of some facilities by making it almost impossible for facilities to meet building codes and specifications. This is perhaps epitomized by British cetacean display facilities, the last of which closed in 1991. Movements of cetaceans into and within the European Union are regulated under EU wildlife trade regulation, established to fulfill EU member nations responsibilities under CITES. Trade in animals listed under Annex A of this regulation (including all cetaceans) is permitted for “research or education aimed at the preservation or conservation of the species,” breeding for conservation, and biomedical research (the latter is not relevant for cetaceans), but not simply for commercial use. Other places such as the Republic of South Africa still permit the capture and display of cetaceans.

In Japan, multispecies drive fisheries that combine capturing animals alive for aquaria and dead for food have, in some drives, exceeded their allowed quota of animals. United States legislation requires that captures be conducted humanely, effectively denying animals from the Japanese fishery to institutions in the United States.

Regional conservation agreements have also been developed. Several nations that are signatories to the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of die Baltic and North Seas (ASCOBANS) are mandated to take part in conservation and research measures. Such measures include preventing the release of potentially harmful substances into the environment, developing fishing gear to reduce bycatch, and reducing the impact of other potentially harmful human activities. They are obliged to prohibit intentional killing of small cetaceans and to release immediately any healthy small cetaceans incidentally caught.

B. Care and Maintenance

The first published accounts of the behavior of captive cetaceans were provided by Charles Townsend in the early 1900s when he was the director of the New York Aquarium. His observations of a group of bottlenose dolphins described their social behavior and some sensory capabilities. Townsend understood the importance of developing health care and water treatment regimes to promote long-term survival. Requirements for the care and maintenance of marine mammals can vary dramatically between countries and between jurisdictions within a countiy. These requirements include regulations regarding pool dimensions and constniction materials; food quality and feeding schedules; water quality; air quality; veterinary care; and educational message. There are countries (e.g., the United States) where the agency responsible for overseeing capture and international transport is different from that responsible for care and maintenance. United States regulations require that facilities importing animals from the United States must meet U.S standards of care and maintenance. These standards should become the de facto standards anywhere importing animals from the United States.

A core aspect of the argument against maintaining captive cetaceans is that it is impossible to provide an adequate environment for cetaceans in captivity. The basic reasons put forward for this are that pools can never be of adequate size; that regardless of size, pool construction is inappropriate; and that it is impossible to keep animals in suitable social groups. Even the larger commercial facilities, for example, one that includes a complex of four linked (sand-bottomed, rock-lined) pools of30.000.000 liters, with a maximum depth of 7.5 m. holding 12 bottlenose dolphins, are considered inadequate to some. Facilities differ greatlv in their resources, and so die quality of their environment.

IV. Issues

A. Experiencing Captive Marine Mammals

Zoos and aquariums in North America alone are visited by over a hundred million people each year. A Roper Poll titled “Public Attitudes Toward Aquariums, Animal Theme Parks, and Zoos” taken in the United States in 1992 and again in 1995 revealed that more Americans visit zoos and aquariums in the course of a year than the total of those that attend all professional sporting events. The assumption is that people, having experienced living marine mammals in close proximity, will be more likely to develop (or enhance) their marine conservation ethic. It is clear that public support for marine mammal conservation increased substantially in the latter half of the 20th century. In many parts of the country, images of dolphins are stenciled near storm drains with a reminder that “I live downstream.” The extent to which commercial aquaria contributed to this change is questioned by some of those calling for closures. as is the extent to which this remains true todav. The public view of killer whales changed radically at the same time as they appeared in captivity, supporting the “captive animals as ambassadors” argument. Unfortunately, there is little current research (by either side) on the extent to which \isiting aquaria affects peoples’ conservation ethic.

Some anticaptivity proponents suggest that it would be better if people ventured out to the ocean to see cetaceans through commercial whale watching. Whether most people who visit aquaria would go whale watching if the aquaria did not exist is unknown. However, whale watching has become an industry in itself. In 1989, the whale-watching industry off the Atlantic seaboard of the United States alone brought in 23 million dollars. Along with the increasing popularity of these trips, there is also an increasing number of reports of inappropriate behavior of whale watchers and a growing need for regulation. At marine mammal facilities, it is much easier to monitor and guard against inappropriate human behavior than it is out in the open ocean. Additionally, the environmental impact of an extra several million people a year going whale watching has not been estimated, but could be substantial. Most opponents of captivity are in favor of whale watching. However, if viewing captive cetaceans enhances an inappropriate worldview (as opponents of captive cetaceans contend), can large-scale commercial whale watching do the same? The argument that equal or greater conservation benefit could be gained through multimedia presentations remains untested.

Most of this discourse is set in a Western context. Public awareness of marine mammals in most other nations is less developed than it is in the West. It may be that zoos and aquaria can make a significant contribution in these countries.

B. Scientific Value of Captive Marine Mammals

The value of studies conducted with captive marine mammals has also come under scrutiny. However, before field studies of living cetaceans burgeoned (after the late 1970s), captive animals were the major means by which scientists collected data on biology and behavior. Some phenomenon such as echolocation may still have been unknown if not for captive animals. Still today, the echolocation capabilities of most dolphin species remain unknown, and controlled experiments with captive animals are the only way by which we are likely to determine them. Because there are so many other questions that have not or cannot be answered using wild marine mammals, captive animals are still the primary source of data for several fields such as comparative psychology, cognition, physiology, acoustics, toxicology, immunology, reproduction, and medicine. The remarkable sensing abilities of dolphins and their perceived intelligence are, paradoxically, two of the arguments used against their maintenance in captivity.

Most of the opposition to the scientific value of captive marine mammals appears to disregard the value of experiments in biological research generally and of the capacity lor “pure” research” to alter peoples’ outlook on conservation issues. Interplay remains between work on captive and free-ranging animals. Recent experiments with captive dolphins have provided new insights into the role of bottlenose dolphins whistle repertoires. allowing development of better focused studies of free-ranging animals. The role of animal language experiments generally in providing direct conservation benefit through redefining our view of humanity’s place in the natural world is (like the conservation value of captive facilities or whale watching) difficult to estimate, but may be substantial.

More recently, open ocean training has made it possible to use captive animals to conduct some studies in the wild. Incorporating both wild and captive marine mammals is also gaining favor in recent years. In a report to the Marine Mammal Commission, international experts advised the use of “model [marine mammal] species that have been well studied and are readily available in captivity . . . [to] provide basic insight about the variability in and relationships between contaminants and basic health and physiological processes, bio-markers, reproduction, and survival. Such insight could prove critical to interpretation of contaminant impacts on wild marine mammal populations” (MMC. 1999). Ken Norris. a pioneer in the field ol marine mammalogy—both captive and wild—contended that “Both kinds of studv are crucial, really” (Norris, 1984).

C. Captive Breeding for Conservation

While some populations of wild marine mammals have been reduced or depleted as a result of high mortality, populations of marine mammals in zoos, aquariums, and research facilities have increased as a result of successful breeding programs. Since the first birth of a bottlenose dolphin in an exhibit facility at Marine Studios in 1947, breeding programs have become more and more successful, increasing the number of animals at these facilities and providing animals to other marine mammal facilities. By 1996, 44% of bottlenose dolphins on exhibit in North America were a result of successful breeding programs. The success of bottlenose dolphin breeding programs is probably due in large part to the fact that more of these animals are available for breeding programs and more is known about the physiology and husbandry of this species than any other cetacean. Although there is still a paucity of data from free-ranging animals, it has also been shown that once acclimated, bottlenose dolphins in well-maintained facilities have survival rates comparable to those in the only free-ranging population that has been studied over a long time.

Breeding animals in zoological facilities has a role in the conservation of some endangered species. It has been suggested that such ex situ conservation supports the existence of aquaria. However, the development of such programs should not be an excuse to ignore our responsibility to implement conservation strategies to protect wild populations and their habitat.

There are major difficulties confronting those wishing to develop ex situ breeding programs for marine mammals, but the advances in reproductive technologies and the establishment of population management protocols will help overcome those challenges. After all, the successful 1999 birth of a giant panda at the San Diego Zoo in California was a result of artificial insemination. Even though the marine mammal species most commonly maintained in captivity are not endangered, knowledge and technologies developed with these animals can be applied to those that are at greater risk. While permits for the capture or importation of such animals may be difficult to obtain in some countries, demonstrating success with captive breeding programs may help overcome these difficulties.

Opponents to oceanariums worry that taking animals from the wild will threaten wild populations. To prevent this, no captures should be allowed unless stock structure is well understood and the takes can be shown to be sustainable. While in the 1990s, only seven cetaceans, three Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) and four belugas, were collected from North American waters for public display and research in U.S. facilities, marine mammals in the wild are dying in large numbers. Gaskin (1982) warns, “If there is one lesson which modern ecological science has for us, it is that if one protects the habitat, then animal populations can show remarkable resilience in the face of other external pressures, even those such as intensive predation by man.”

D. Rehabilitation

At times, free-ranging marine mammals that are ill, injured, or have suffered some misadventure require rehabilitation. In most cases, these are species that are not at risk of extinction, and so the issue is one of animal welfare, not conservation. An exception to this is the efforts made to rehabilitate Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris) where the rehabilitation and subsequent return to the wild of each individual manatee have demonstrable conservation value. Whether or not a species is endangered, with each rescue comes the possibility of acquiring new knowledge that will benefit all marine mammal species whether they be endangered or otherwise. Generally, zoos and aquaria provide needed support to rescue operations whether they be expertise, facilities, medicine, or food, and their role in rehabilitation has been rather significant.

E. Release

Perhaps due to the decrease in collecting animals from the wild, attention has now focused more on releasing those already in facilities. Several attempts have been made to release captive dolphins back to the wild. Following the closure of “Atlantis” in Perth, Western Australia, nine bottlenose dolphins were released in 1992. Animals were radiotracked after a gradual release back to the waters from which some had been caught 11 years previously (three were captive born). After a few weeks, three animals in very poor condition were returned to a sea pen, but the fate of most was unknown due to the failure of the radio tags. The animals that were recovered died of poisoning in late 1999.

The release program for Keiko, the killer whale that starred in the movie “Free Willy,” encapsulates some of the issues regarding captivity. Caught as a calf by the Icelandic capture industry, he was imported to Canada and then to Mexico where he was held in an inadequate pool with no other members of his own species. Activists organized his importation to another captive facility in the United States where his condition improved before he was moved to Iceland for a planned release. At this writing, he is in a sea pen and is being trained to catch prey prior to his release. However, the example of the “Atlantis” release demonstrated that it is insufficient to teach cetaceans to catch prey—they need to be able to locate and capture their prey using less energy to do so than the prey provides. Although there are plans for Keiko to be fitted with a satellite tag, recovering him from oceanic waters off Iceland will be logistically challenging if there are indications that his health is deteriorating after release.

Just as the conservation value of zoos and aquaria should be questioned, so too should the value of release projects. Do the perceived benefits of using an individual animal as an ambassador to send a message about captivity outweigh the costs (e.g., funding for conservation projects foregone, greenhouse gas emissions used in the release) and possible risks of the project?

Too little money is available already for needy conservation programs, particularly for projects in developing countries. Clearly, people are more likely to be stirred into supporting a grandiose cause such as the Keiko release rather than more mundane low-profile projects with no immediate emotive attraction. Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, stated: “Free Keiko, free Lolita, free Corky, free Hondo. These are wonderful and appealing ideals, but not all captive cetaceans can or should be freed. Not all facilities holding marine animals are the enemy. And the huge sums raised to free a few individuals could be more positively directed toward ending the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of nameless whales, dolphins, and seals on the world’s oceans. Never in the history of the animal protection movement have so many given so much for so few and so many given so little for such large numbers” (from the June 1995 edition of Animal People).

F. Funding

Just as some zoos and aquaria contribute significant funds and resources to rescue and rehabilitation programs, some agencies keeping captive marine mammals also support research programs. For example, most of the research into cetaceans’ acoustic faculties has been funded through the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR). There have been suggestions that the significant contribution made by the ONR to funding cetacean research affects the capacity of scientists to comment openly on issues relating to the U.S. Navy, although this is disputed. Some captive facilities and groups opposed to captivity either employ full-time research staff or provide funding for research projects. The relative funding provided by the two groups varies dramatically between countries, and there are places where one or both of the groups contribute significantly to research efforts.

V. Conclusion

The ongoing debate continues over whether marine mammals. particularly whales and dolphins, should be kept in captivity. Basically the debate between pro- and anticaptivity groups boils down to one thing: does the benefit achieved by holding animals in captivity outweigh the costs involved—both to the individual animal and to the population from which the animal came if all parties view “benefit” as contributing to the conservation of free-ranging marine mammals. Both sides believe their positions to be valid and rational. Neither side can afford to lose sight of the need to identify what is. in fact, better for the animal as opposed to what makes the participants in the debate feel satisfied.

In this debate, scientific data are often ignored because the debate has become based more on personal philosophy than on science, or the value of the science is debated. If nothing else, the debate brings attention to marine mammals, not only to those in facilities, but to those in the wild as well. The passing of the MMPA in the United States effectively curbed the mortality of dolphins in tuna nets from over 400,000 dolphins before the MMPA to less than 4000 in 1995. This is most likely a reflection of a new-found feeling of stewardship for marine mammals evoked by both marine parks housing them and activists trying to release them. However, the ongoing debate may be hurting them as well. Energy and money spent on a debate that may never be resolved may be more helpful to the animals if spent on improving the quality of the oceans. Klamer et al (1991) suggested “If the increase in ocean PCB concentration continues, it may ultimately result in the extinction of fish-eating marine mammals.” Ocean warming and other anthropogenic changes in the oceans are also potential threats along with the undermining of legislation such as the Endangered Species Act. Reynolds and colleagues (2000) ask whether the natural world today is a healthier place to live than the captive environment. They state that there is evidence that humans have damaged coastal and marine environments so much that the well-being of some wild dolphins may be in greater jeopardy than collection animals.

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