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April 30, 2010

Hearing Highlights Problems with Marine Mammals in Parks

Putting whales on display can do more harm than good


The value of captive display and performance spectacles involving whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals—a subject of debate for some years—was the flashpoint of an April 27 congressional hearing on whether theme parks that sponsor such exhibits and shows are providing entertaining education … or merely entertainment. 

Long time coming

The hearing, held by the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife, of the House Natural Resources Committee, was the first full-scale congressional inquiry concerning captive marine mammals in 16 years.

Representatives of the captive industry at the hearing offered anecdotal claims that children are frequently inspired to become scientists or trainers after a visit to a theme park.  Against such assertions, other witnesses—including Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for The HSUS and its international arm Humane Society International—discussed recent analysis suggesting that display and associated educational programs have generally resulted in biased, misleading, or plainly inaccurate information being circulated to the public. 

Dr. Rose also reviewed the legislative and regulatory history of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), to underscore The HSUS’s longstanding view that the federal government should do more to fulfill its statutory obligation to implement and enforce regulations concerning educational content provided by public display facilities.  In particular, The HSUS has urged that the National Marine and Fisheries Service (NMFS) do more to ensure that zoos, aquariums and theme parks continue to maintain education programs that meet professionally recognized standards of the public display community.

Watch the hearing»

Read Dr. Rose's testimony»

The February drowning of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum in Orlando, and Tilikum’s subsequent banishment to a tank behind the scenes, hung like rainclouds over the congressional hearing.  Public scrutiny of SeaWorld’s safety record remains intense, and officials of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration continue their investigation of a decade’s worth of incidents involving trainer injury at SeaWorld.  Tilikum, in the meantime, is still not performing in the shows and may never do so again; his involvement in the deaths of three people since 1991 means his future is very uncertain indeed. 

Regulation, please

In her testimony, Dr. Rose underscored the negative outcomes associated with the failure of the NMFS to issue regulations concerning the education programs of public display facilities.  For almost two decades, the agency has left the display industry to self-regulate—not what the original statute or the amendments intended—and the results have ill-served visitors to these attractions. 

The captive display industry has weathered the storms of negative publicity a number of times in the past.  Brancheau’s drowning has changed the landscape, however, because more than any incident, it has exploded the image of performance spectacle involving marine mammals as a magical, thrilling, and innocent pursuit.  Her death has led a broader segment of the American public, as well as some of the members of this key congressional subcommittee, to question whether the performance of a whale who has killed and may kill again can still be considered educational. It cast a shroud of doubt over all shows and displays involving such animals.  

From the long-term perspective of marine mammal protection as envisioned under the MMPA, the April 27 hearing provides new momentum to the call for meaningful regulation and enforcement by the NMFS.   Such oversight is all the more urgent in light of this year’s cascade of disturbing events within the captive display industry.  The safety and well-being of marine mammals and humans alike depend upon it.

Take Action

You can help captive marine mammals. Before May 7, email the clerk of the subcommittee hearing, Katherine Romans, and tell her that orcas and other marine mammals don’t belong on public display.

Then email the National Marine Fisheries Service, and urge them to pass the strongest possible regulations to govern the public display of marine mammals. Comments are due by June 10.

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