By Jill Howard-Church,
Animals and Society
Two recent developments indicate the marine park industry might be taking on water.
First came word August 6 that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration denied a request by the Georgia Aquarium to import 18 beluga whales intended for captive display [NOAA Denies Permit to Import 18 Beluga Whales for Display at Georgia Aquarium and Partner Facilities]. The whales were taken from their native Russian families several years ago and have been kept in a holding pen while the permit was being considered. What the captors didn't bet on was an outpouring of nearly 9,000 comments from concerned citizens and organizations who contacted NOAA opposing the plan on humane and environmental grounds.
NOAA cited several reasons for denying the importation, including the concern that doing so would encourage the capture of even more whales from the wild, and because five of the whales were so young that they likely weren't even weaned yet. Sam Rauch, acting assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said that "under the strict criteria of the law, we were unable to determine if the import of these belugas, combined with the active capture operation in Russia and other human activities, would have an adverse impact on this stock of wild beluga whales."
The Georgia Aquarium planned to keep a few of the whales for itself and loan the others to various SeaWorld parks and Chicago's Shedd Aquarium. At least five belugas (including a newborn) have died at the Georgia and Chicago locations (combined) within the past decade.
Unlike much of the public, the humane community was under no illusion about the purpose of the proposed whale importation. Although the aquariums claimed the 18 whales would "diversify" the captive population (provide more breeding stock) and enhance "research" (of how whales taken from natural family groups in the ocean adapt to forced pairings in a small tank?), it was pretty clear that the importation was meant to help counter the poor survival and/or breeding records of belugas already in captivity, and add beluga attractions to more aquariums as a marketing tool.
For now, the fate of the 18 Russian belugas is unknown; they might be sold to other aquariums elsewhere in the world or (dare we hope?) set free. (Maybe if someone told Russian President Vladimir Putin the whales were gay, he'd expedite their departure.)
Meanwhile, in other captive whale news, SeaWorld's stock prices took a dive this week after the company posted a nearly $16 million loss in the second quarter of 2013. A writer for the San Diego Reader noted, "The company did not acknowledge the possibility that the release of 'Blackfish,' a documentary chronicling the problems with its use of killer whales as 'modern-day circus lions'... could have also had an adverse effect on attendance. The parks have also endured protests launched by environmentalists and animal-rights activists over the last year."
And with CNN due to air "Blackfish" on TV on October 24 - potentially reaching a much larger audience than the film currently will in limited theater release - SeaWorld's attendance numbers might not get much buoyancy the foreseeable future. TIME magazine's review of the film didn't mince words about its dire message, and other media reviews have acknowledged the documentary's powerful impact. The Los Angeles Times reported that the storyline for the upcoming "Finding Nemo" sequel, "Finding Dory" (Dory being the animated fish whose voice comes from vegan animal advocate Ellen DeGeneres) was modified after the producers saw "Blackfish" and decided to change plot points involving marine parks.
If awareness of the plight of captive whales continues, it could bring about a sea change in how the public views this particular form of entertainment.
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