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Humpback whale © Christopher Swann

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SeaWorld’s “science” partner?

SeaWorld will likely counter the claim that they are not conducting science by noting their association with Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute (HSWRI). Founded back in 1963 with their mission statement being “to return to the sea some measure of the benefits derived from it”, it was time to look a bit more closely at what HSWRI are up to, remembering that over the past years they have received at least US$146,000 from the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund alone.

The HSWRI note 106 publications on their website, more than twice as many as SeaWorld themselves, however being specifically a “research institute” you would of course expect little else. Of these, 39 papers focus on cetaceans (approx. 40%) and unlike SeaWorld, all but one of these has been published in the last 20 years. It must however be noted that only 10 of the 39 papers (less than 10%) actually focus on “wild” cetaceans, three of which focus on the critically endangered Yangtze finless porpoise and seven of which focus on Hubbs’s long-term study subjects, the bottlenose dolphins of Indian River lagoon in Florida. None focus on wild killer whales.

Narrow-ridged finless porpoise (c) Grant Abel

With respect to their publications on captive animals, only two papers focus on killer whales. One paper speaks of captive killer whale growth, the other focuses on captive killer whale reproduction. Interestingly, both of these are duplicated on the SeaWorld website so who is actually taking the credit for these papers? SeaWorld or Hubbs? Either way, both lists are seriously lacking when it comes to any dedicated research on WILD killer whales.

Given the lack of published papers on killer whales, we want to take the opportunity to talk about Hubbs’s “long-term monitoring of dolphins” as this particular population of bottlenose dolphins are the reason for, and the source of, a substantial amount of their funding – both from SeaWorld and the US Government. 

The Indian River Lagoon in Florida was one of the places that bottlenose dolphins were first captured for the entertainment industry and from the 1970’s through until 1989, a total of 68 individuals were taken from the wild destined for a life in a captive facility.

Despite having been studying these dolphins for 40 years, and noting the following on their own website “the Indian River Lagoon is used by people for boating and fishing, so it is important to know about the biology of dolphins and how human activities may affect them” none of these studies have actually resulted in any notable conservation benefits for the dolphins and it would appear that Hubbs are merely documenting their steady decline. However, in all fairness we should remember that Hubbs are a “research Institute” and it is perhaps not within their mandate to forage and develop policy but it would be responsible of them to at least try and ensure that their work does “return to the sea some measure of the benefits derived from it”.

The lagoon has reportedly long been polluted by nutrient and fertiliser run off and to add to this, in the last 25 years, the human population along the lagoon has increased by over 50%. Florida does not have strict laws regulating run-off and it doesn’t appear that Hubbs have made any efforts to change this fact. Many believe that the problem has now come to a tipping point or as one person put it – “the lagoon is now in full collapse with algal blooms covering the majority of the lagoon waters”. The dolphins appear to be dying in unprecedented numbers (in a recent paper they noted that they included samples from 61 dead animals collected over the course of 10 years) and since January 2013 an unusual mortality event has been declared – likely due to harmful algal blooms. The most significant and unifying gross necropsy finding is emaciation with dolphins lately being found to have unusually high numbers of shrimp in their stomachs – shrimp are a non-preferred prey item inferring that their preferred prey is also in decline. There have also been more incidences of dolphins interacting with fishing boats – presumably as a result of prey depletion and close interaction with boaters.

From our understanding of the scientific papers published on the dolphins from the Indian River Lagoon, there have been no requests for changes in policy (like a change in the law on nutrient and fertiliser run-off), no management plans put in place, no clear conservation benefits for the dolphins at all. In fact in 40 years they still don’t have an accurate population estimate and put it at somewhere between 200 and 800 animals – quite a difference you might say and surely something that is crucial to know.

So what future for these dolphins once targeted for the “entertainment” industry? Sadly … it doesn’t look very promising and unless steps are taken to implement protective measures for the dolphins, their prey and the habitat they rely on these dolphins may soon only be a distant memory. 

About Nicola Hodgins

Policy Manager at WDC