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September 25, 2009

Held Captive: Orcas

Whales captured and held as a source of profit for aquariums

The Humane Society of the United States

Catching orcas for public display is a deadly business—for the orcas.

When Russia took a plunge into the captive-orca business on September 26, 2003, it had been more than six years since the last orca capture for public display. Russia should have heeded the warning of that February 1997 mission in the waters off Taiji, Japan. Of the five orcas netted back then, two died within five months of capture.

Suffice to say, no one in the international community was surprised when two orcas—the first victims of Russia's new plan to remove and sell these animals from its waters in Kamchatka—died quickly. The first, a juvenile of unknown sex, was killed during the capture operation, thus increasing the violent disruption of the targeted pod. The second, a young female who survived the trauma of capture, was held for "research purposes" at the Utrish Aquarium on the Black Sea for one month before she too died.

This all-too-predictable outcome is unlikely, however, to deter the Russian government from pursuing what it sees as a lucrative source of hard currency.

Not that we, or any other organization, are sitting still for it. For the past few years, The HSUS, in cooperation with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, has been funding research to study Russia's orca population. With the Far Eastern Russia Orca Project, we hope to impress upon the Russian government that these orcas are likely to suffer long-term negative impacts when integral members of a social group are removed.

We hope that the preliminary findings of our research (which we hope to add to in coming years), along with the death of these two young whales, will put a stop to future captures in Russia.

The trouble at home

The troubling global trade in orcas is not just an issue abroad. Americans can look in their own backyard for an example of a government willing to bend backwards for the marine park industry. Such is the case with an orca named Kshamenk (pronounced "shah-menk"), and Six Flags Worlds of Adventure in Ohio.

In 2001, Six Flags purchased the SeaWorld Ohio marine park. The orcas that had been on exhibit at SeaWorld Ohio were removed, and one was sent to each of the three remaining parks owned by SeaWorld—one to California, one to Texas, and one to Florida.

Unable to acquire an orca domestically, Six Flags looked to the international market and made deals to acquire two orcas—Shouka, a young captive-bred female from France's Marineland Antibes, and Kshamenk, a young wild-caught male from Mundo Marino ("Marine World") in Argentina.

The import of these orcas into the United States would have been the first from outside North America in many years. Six Flags applied to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to import the whales and, despite considerable protest and the failure of Argentina to issue a final decision on an export permit for Kshamenk, NMFS issued the import permit in May 2002. Within days, Shouka (for whom France had earlier issued an export permit) was transported to Ohio.

Kshamenk, however, was another story.

Mundo Marino's acquisition of Kshamenk had already sparked intense controversy in Argentina: He had stranded in 1992, and Mundo Marino "rescued" him and then kept him for public display when its staff determined the orca could not be released. Evidence and eyewitness testimony strongly suggested, however, that Kshamenk had been force-stranded (driven ashore on purpose), and, although perfectly releasable, retained to circumvent Argentine laws against the commercial capture of wild marine mammals.

NMFS essentially dismissed the problems with Kshamenk's acquisition, as well as the considerable negative response to Six Flags' permit request. The agency also ignored the fact that the Argentine government had yet to issue an export permit for the orca, giving the benefit of the doubt to Six Flags and Mundo Marino.

In late July 2002, however, Argentina categorically denied an export permit for Kshamenk, thus rendering the U.S. import permit at best moot and at worst in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which requires that all actions associated with an import permit be legal in the country of origin.

In mid-July 2002, even before Argentina ultimately denied the export permit, The HSUS and other groups filed a lawsuit, challenging NMFS's issuance of the import permit. We argued that the import permit was improper because Argentina had not granted an export permit and because the legality of Kshamenk's capture was very much in question. We also charged NMFS with violating the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to complete an environmental assessment, as required, before issuing the permit.

Given Argentina's subsequent denial of an export permit, the import permit should simply have been revoked. Ignoring the suit, NMFS not only failed to rescind the import permit, but when the permit expired in May 2003, the agency granted a year's extension. Meanwhile, Shouka has been condemned to swim in solitary confinement.

The HSUS intends to pursue the case, because clearly the sovereign decision of Argentina should be respected and reflected in the actions of the U.S. government. Six Flags and Mundo Marino are apparently pursuing appeals to the export permit denial, but they have had no success in over a year.

It's time that the animals be given the benefit of the doubt under law; the burden of proof should be placed squarely on the marine park industry to prove that all actions associated with proposed trade in cetaceans are legal.

External Link: The Killer in the Pool (Outside Magazine)

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