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Celebrating WDC-North America’s 10 Year Anniversary: Slow but Steady Progress Towards an End to Captivity

As WDC celebrates its ten years in North America, we have been reflecting on both our achievements and the work that still needs to be done.  We often use the analogy of our conservation work being like running a marathon – there are many hills to tackle, but as long as we are moving in the right direction we WILL get to the finish line.  Over the next several weeks we will be sharing our achievements in a blog series, Celebrating WDC-North America’s 10 Year Anniversary, with this first piece summarizing some of our efforts to put an end to captivity.

With any industry, the forces of supply and demand govern its success or failure. Such is true for the whale and dolphin captive industry. Unfortunately, in this case, the animals bear the negative costs of an exploitative industry, including physical, psychological, and emotional suffering. Over the past decade, WDC has worked diligently to hold the captivity industry accountable and enhance existing protections for captive whales and dolphins, and their wild counterparts. We believe that making the public aware of the captivity industry’s true costs will reduce consumer demand. The declining attendance and revenues at SeaWorld’s facilities appear to support our belief.

What follows is a sample of our efforts during the last ten years:

Dolphin petting pools

In 2003, WDC published a report containing the results of its undercover investigations of dolphin petting pools. We have been monitoring these pools since the mid-1990s, and have revealed not only a disturbing frequency of bites and aggression by dolphins in these pools towards the public, but also the mistreatment of dolphins at the hands of patrons. The investigation revealed instances of dolphins ingesting debris dropped into pools, overcrowded pools, and the potential transmission of disease from humans to dolphins, and vice versa. Accordingly, the report concluded such exhibits expose both humans and dolphins to unnecessary risks. 

WDC shared this important information with U.S. regulators with the goal of changing the status quo. As a result, we have seen the conditions at these dolphin petting pools gradually change, and include restricted access to the dolphins; limited areas for feeding and interaction; and signage instructing patrons that feeding dolphins is illegal in the wild.

WDC continues to advocate for stronger federal regulations governing the welfare of captive whales and dolphins. We petitioned the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to prohibit petting pools in August 2009. The proposed rule updating these regulations is long overdue. We hope the enhanced public interest in the captivity issue resulting from Blackfish will complement our ongoing efforts and encourage APHIS to release the proposed regulations for public comment.

Our report also highlighted the negative impact of these exhibits on wild dolphin populations. WDC believes that human-dolphin interaction programs and experiences encourage patrons to seek similar interactions with dolphins in the wild.  Unfortunately, such close interactions, such as feeding, can teach dolphins in the wild to associate humans with food and make them more susceptible to injury from vessels and vandals while engaged with humans and seeking a handout. In response, SeaWorld has placed signs near its dolphin petting exhibits reminding patrons of their responsibility not to feed wild dolphins. Sadly, humans continue to harass dolphins in the wild, especially around Florida’s coastline, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico. This harmful activity increases the potential for negative interactions and injury for both dolphins and humans. Although there is still work to be done, one positive outcome resulting from our persistent outreach efforts is SeaWorld’s recent announcement that it is finally phasing out dolphin petting exhibits at its facilities.

Imports of captive whales and dolphins into the U.S.

WDC actively opposes the international trade in whales and dolphins. This trade perpetuates a cruel industry and allows it to expand to new markets around the world. More importantly, the act of removing these animals from the wild degrades the genetic and cultural diversity of the entire species making it more vulnerable to environmental changes and other man-made threats.

In August 2013, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied the Georgia Aquarium’s (Aquarium) application to import 18 belugas captured in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk.  The aquarium failed to meet permitting requirements under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). In denying the Aquarium’s application, NMFS stated it did not have enough information to conclude that the import (if allowed) would not result in additional removals of belugas beyond those proposed for import in the application. Further, NMFS determined the Aquarium failed to present enough evidence indicating the import would not have a negative impact on the population as a whole.

In September 2013, the Aquarium appealed NMFS’s decision in federal court. In general, federal courts give great deference to federal agency decisions. Accordingly, the Aquarium had to prove NMFS’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” in light of the legislative intent behind the MMPA and its supporting regulations. In other words, the Aquarium had to show NMFS had no rational basis for its decision. Still, WDC and a consortium of advocacy groups joined the case on the side of NMFS in April 2014. 

WDC’s decision to support NMFS’ original permit denial in this case recognized the significance of the agency’s ruling. NMFS had never before denied an import application for public display. In addition, the Agency’s decision to deny the permit finally recognized the impact that international trade for public display can have on wild populations of whales and dolphins. NMFS’s rationale for denying the application reaffirms the precautionary principles underlying the MMPA and will serve as an important precedent for future cases.

In September 2015, Judge Totenberg of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia agreed with NMFS’s original decision to deny the application. Her 100-page decision thoroughly analyzed and dismissed each of the Aquarium’s complaints. This decision has the potential to deal a significant blow to future imports of wild-caught whales and dolphins into the U.S. The Aquarium recently announced it would not appeal the court’s decision. 

However, this victory is bittersweet. The 18 belugas proposed for import in the Aquarium’s application were captured between 2006 and 2011. Unfortunately, given the continued demand for captive whales and dolphins throughout Asia and the Middle East it is likely these belugas will spend the rest of their lives in captivity.

Zoo and aquarium community response to the dolphin drive hunts

As early as 2002, WDC began gathering information concerning the complicity of zoos and aquaria in sourcing live dolphins from the dolphin drive hunts in Japan. We believe zoos and aquaria bear a degree of responsibility for this inhumane practice by providing a continuous demand for captive whales and dolphins. As a result, we engaged zoo and aquaria associations with the goal of convincing them to discourage their members and affiliates from participating in this practice. In response, the Association of Zoos and Aquaria (AZA) condemned the Taiji drive hunts in 2004. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) and the Alliance for Marine Mammal Parks and Aquaria (Alliance) issued similar statements soon after.

In 2006, WDC published a report entitled Driven by Demand. This report was unprecedented in its comprehensive documentation of the connection between the captivity industry and the Taiji hunts. WDC was the first organization to force the industry to acknowledge its link to this cruel practice.

After a decade of dialogue and critical engagement with WDC and other groups, WAZA finally expelled the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (JAZA) in April 2015, citing their continuing involvement in sourcing dolphins from the drive hunts as a violation of WAZA ethical codes and mandates, and stemming from these policy statements issued in 2004.  JAZA chose to comply, and was reinstated as a member within WAZA in July 2015. With this reinstatement, all JAZA-member facilities can no longer source dolphins from the drive hunts in Taiji.

As importantly, WDC has been active on confronting the dolphin drive hunt issue in Japan on various levels, both through direct action and on-site presence, to rallying the marine mammal scientific community to issue statements against the drive hunts, and obtaining a congressional resolution against the hunts. Through our active briefings to the U.S. State Department on this issue, we have also raised diplomatic pressure against the hunts.  We will continue our efforts to end dolphin drive hunts in Japan and other parts of the world.

Airline campaign

The transportation sector plays a critical role in perpetuating the captivity industry. Airline and cargo companies transport wild-caught whales and dolphins, sometimes thousands of miles to marine parks and aquaria located around the world. These include facilities in Egypt, Ukraine, Turkey, Iran, China and Vietnam. Carriers such as Air China, ULS, Nankai Express, Korean Air Cargo and others facilitate this traffic in wild-caught whales and dolphins.

To address this critical link in the supply chain, WDC contacted over 300 airlines worldwide. Specifically, our campaign targeted both current and past participants in the trade.  We asked them to commit not to transport wild-caught whales and dolphins (except under special circumstances implicating the animal’s health and welfare) and implement policies and procedures to maintain their commitment over the long term.

The campaign’s results have been encouraging to date. Over 50 airlines have committed to no longer transport wild-caught whales and dolphins, including Emirates, KLM, Austrian Airlines, Olympic Air, Thai Airways, Delta Airlines, US Airways, British Airways, SriLankan Airlines and others. Additionally, Japan Airlines has confirmed it no longer carries dolphins caught in the drive hunts.

WDC’s current airline campaign has its roots in the 1990s. At that time, we convinced Lufthansa Airlines (Lufthansa) to agree to stop transporting bottlenose dolphins captured in the Black Sea. Two dolphins captured in the Black Sea had recently died on a Lufthansa flight carrying them from Russia to Argentina. As a result of our dialogue with the airline, Lufthansa implemented a voluntary policy prohibiting the transport of wild-caught whales and dolphins. In May 2001, Lufthansa went even further and stopped transporting all wild animals for commercial purposes. Lufthansa continues to enforce its voluntary ban.

In 2011, Hong Kong Airlines announced they would no longer transport wild-caught dolphins. This announcement came after WDC and other organizations petitioned the airline to stop transporting animals captured in Taiji to Vietnam as it had done in the past. Additionally, WDC and a small consortium of advocacy groups pressured United Parcel Service (UPS) to stop transporting dolphins captured in the Solomon Islands. At this time, we have not received a definitive commitment from UPS to end this practice but we are continuing our efforts with them.

WDC has also engaged other airlines, such as Southwest Airlines, with the goal of convincing them to end their relationships with captive facilities such as SeaWorld and others. Southwest does not transport whales and dolphins to SeaWorld, but at the time our outreach began Southwest and SeaWorld had a decades-long joint marketing relationship. As a result of our collaboration, Southwest stepped up and ended this partnership. 

These and other efforts demonstrate WDC’s multi-pronged strategic approach to ending whale and dolphin captivity in the U.S.