The “Blackfish” Legacy; Hopeful News As Captive Marine Mammal Industry Continues To Decline

A decade after the award-winning documentary “Blackfish” examined the ethics and consequences of keeping orcas in captivity, marine theme parks and aquariums that feature cetaceans are struggling to remain relevant.

According to a new report co-produced by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and World Animal Protection (WAP), public opposition in the West to confining cetaceans for display and entertainment has “passed the tipping point.”

The sixth edition of The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity was released today at Superpod 8, a gathering of orca advocates in Friday Harbor, Washington. The gathering brings together the public, media, policymakers, students, scientists, and others who wish to learn why marine mammals fundamentally do not belong in captivity.

Citing robust scientific evidence and ethical arguments, the 186-page report details how cetaceans and other marine mammals suffer in captivity. In small concrete enclosures that provide a tiny fraction of the space and virtually none of the stimulation found in their natural habitats, these animals are prevented from carrying out their most fundamental behaviors — roaming freely, hunting, diving deep, and choosing a social group. The report concludes that “the entire captive experience for marine mammals is so impoverished and contrary to even the most basic elements of compassion, that it should be rejected outright when its primary purpose is to entertain people.”

The report is timely, as this month marks the 10th anniversary of “Blackfish.” The documentary focused on Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando who killed three people over the course of his three-plus decades in captivity, including his trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. It is also the 30th anniversary of “Free Willy,” a feature film about a boy who befriends a captive orca at an amusement park and finally releases him back to his family. The movie’s success led to the return of Keiko — the captive orca who played Willy — to his home waters in Iceland.

“I have been working on this campaign for 30 years, and the tragic and unnecessary death of Dawn Brancheau changed everything for the captive marine mammal industry,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, the report’s lead author and AWI’s marine mammal scientist. “The children who saw ‘Free Willy’ and were sensitized to this issue saw ‘Blackfish’ 20 years later as adults. They realized that they didn’t want to expose their own kids to marine theme parks that caused these magnificent beings to suffer.”

The debate over captive marine mammals has only intensified since the report was first produced in 1995. Media scrutiny of controversial captures, unnecessary deaths, and inhumane transports has exposed behind-the-scenes suffering and debunked the industry’s portrayal of content animals performing happily for fish treats.

The majority of the public believes that marine mammals should not be kept in captivity unless there are major educational or scientific benefits. In 2016, SeaWorld announced that it would phase out its orca displays by ending its breeding program and trade in orcas. The company also said that it would no longer hold orcas at any newly constructed facilities.

Canada passed historic legislation in 2019 to end the public display of captive cetaceans. Several tourism companies, including Virgin Holidays and TripAdvisorhave either ended or restricted their promotion of swim-with-dolphin attractions.

In response, the captive display industry has doubled down on claims that it is meaningfully contributing to education and conservation. In reality, the report notes, “facilities engaged in captive breeding tend merely to create a surplus of animals from non-endangered species who are not intended for release into the wild and are therefore only used to propagate the industry.”

“This report makes it very clear: All marine mammals are sentient beings who can experience emotions, pain, and pleasure,” said Dr. Jan Schmidt-Burbach, head of wildlife research and animal welfare at WAP. “In captivity, they show symptoms of being depressed and often develop stereotypic behaviours, ranging from repetitive motions to harmful behaviours. We will continue to fight for the thousands of cetaceans who continue to suffer in captivity, and to prevent more animals being bred or captured for the display industries.” 

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