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© Regina Asmutis-Silvia, minutes before snow squall

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Pledge Never to Plunge: The Wild Ones

Imagine a day in the life of a wild dolphin, swimming free with your family.  Your pod is your social identity – you are an individual, but you are lost without your companions around you.  You all travel together, you forage together, socialize and play, help each other to navigate and avoid danger.  Your pod travels in straight lines in the ocean, dives deep, jumps and spins at will.  Life is good.  Then one day, you are suddenly separated from your family by boats and nets.  You try to reach them, they are calling to you, but you can’t get to them.  You are lifted from the water and experience strange new sensations of movement, and you have no idea what’s happening to you.  Every vocalization is unanswered, every attempt to echolocate bounces back empty, devoid of information.  You are scared, distressed, and hopelessly alone.  You soon find yourself back in water, but this water very different than what you have always known.  It is bright and clear and stings your eyes.  Gone are the rocks, kelp, and fish that populated your ocean home.  Now there is nothing but walls

Although whales and dolphins who live in waters around the United States are now protected from live captures by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (any attempts would require a permit, which would invoke swift public backlash), they are still taken from the wild in many other parts of the world.  Dolphin captures increased in the Caribbean, primarily in Cuban waters after companies were forced out of US waters.  Orcas and belugas are still taken every year in Russia to be sold to marine parks within Russia and overseas.  The most heinous and infamous captures are the drive hunts of Taiji, the subject of the 2009 documentary “The Cove.”

The effects on the individual whales and dolphins captured can be inferred by what we know about captivity – if they survive the initial capture, they are held in cramped and tiny tanks until a buyer is found.  They are shipped across the world and sentenced to a life of boredom, performing silly circus tricks for food, and being forced to interact with the paying public.  The marine park industry is growing in Russia and China – over 250 wild-caught whales and dolphins have been imported into China’s marine parks since 2010.  Of the 262 bottlenose dolphins captured during the 2015/2016 Taiji drive hunts, 104 were sold to marine parks.  Regulations and the standards of care in these facilities are typically lacking, and the whales and dolphins are kept in crowded, dangerous situations.

Less is known about the whales and dolphins left behind.  Communities and families are fractured and torn apart by capture efforts.  They may die in the process, through slaughter in the killing cove of Taiji or from dangerous capture methods.  Captures often target populations about which very little is known, communities that may already be unstable or depleted by other stressors such as bycatch, habitat loss and degradation, pollution, or prey shortages.

Facilities in North America are not exempt from the atrocities of live captures.  Although no longer directly involved in capture efforts, facilities can still import wild-caught whales and dolphins, or their offspring, from foreign countries.   The Georgia Aquarium infamously attempted to import 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia, applying for a permit after they had already been captured.  They were not alone in this request – although Georgia Aquarium would have been the primary recipients of the belugas, SeaWorld and Shedd Aquarium were in line to receive some of these belugas on breeding loans.  (Sadly, these belugas may still be languishing in limbo in Russia (four have already died).  It is unknown what’s been happening to them after the Georgia Aquarium stopped paying for their care in April of this year.  Calls from WDC and other NGOs to establish a release program for the belugas have been dismissed by the Aquarium).  The population of belugas targeted for captures in Russia’s Far East is the subject of a proposal under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act to designate it as a depleted population.  If passed, no wild-caught individuals of the population can be imported to US marine parks.  Meanwhile, Marineland in Canada, home to solitary orca Kiska, still imports wild-caught whales and dolphins and holds a reported 48 belugas, nearly half of whom were taken from the wild.

The National Marine Fisheries Service ultimately denied the Georgia Aquarium’s permit, and after a losing lengthy legal battle, the Aquarium recently announced it will no longer take whales and dolphins from the wild.  With SeaWorld’s announcement in March to end captive breeding for the orcas they hold, their earlier commitment not to import wild-caught whales and dolphins, and the National Aquarium’s commitment to retiring their dolphins to a sanctuary, we welcome this progress towards ending captivity in North America – but we still have a long way to go.  The US can set an example for other countries that have marine parks, and not until we end captivity for all whales and dolphins will the rest of the world follow suit.

Please join us in taking the Pledge Never to Plunge with captive whales and dolphins.  “Swim with the dolphin” and other encounter programs are one more stress on these captive individuals.  Send a clear message by being a conscientious consumer and refusing to visit marine parks or participating in encounter programs.   The movement to end captivity is gaining momentum, but the #forgottenwhales and #forgottendolphins still need your help!