In August 2014, the leading brand in marine mammal attractions, SeaWorld, made a major announcement. After a year spent defending itself against a barrage of criticism for its treatment of captive whales and dolphins, the company said it would open a state-of-the-art killer whale environment - the world’s largest. But it is questionable whether its Blue World Project, which is slated to open in 2018 and gives little indication that SeaWorld will cease its captive whale programme, will be enough to save it.
In July 2013, the documentary Blackfish brought the circumstances of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau’s death - which took place during a show at SeaWorld Florida in 2010 - to an audience of millions, and last month the company’s shares fell by 33%. The bad news continued this week as shareholders filed a lawsuit against SeaWorld, accusing it of misleading investors about the impact the film has had on attendance of its parks. After 50 years as one of America’s most loved family brands, the tide has turned against SeaWorld. The future for attractions that display whales and dolphins to the public has never been so uncertain.
“This is a tipping point”, says Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), who has spent over 20 years advocating the protection of orcas. “I have been out there fighting the fight since 1993 and I was always just a voice in the wilderness. When SeaWorld characterised us as a minority they were correct. But what’s different now is that we’ve become the majority. And SeaWorld doesn’t get it.” Indeed, as public awareness of the issues involved grows, regard for dolphinariums is declining. A survey released in May, commissioned by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and the AWI, found that since 2012 there has been an 11% rise in the number of people opposed to the confinement of orcas in captivity. It also shows that fewer people are on the fence; 50% of Americans are now against the practice. A recent survey of British tourists by the Born Free Foundation showed similar results; 86% said they would not visit a marine park while on an overseas holiday.
While SeaWorld continues to dig its heels in - pointing out that tens of thousands of visitors are in its parks right now - others are responding more progressively. In 2012 the National Aquarium in Baltimore, a highly regarded institution synonymous with its dolphin show, cancelled its performances. Since then visitors have been able to sit and watch the dolphins as they are simply taken care of by staff. Now, the aquarium is considering retiring their eight bottlenose dolphins altogether and is in talks to create the first ocean-side dolphin sanctuary in the US. Its decision was based on regular polling of visitors; it learned that people no longer felt comfortable with the show. “Our audience has evolved,” Aquarium CEO John Racanelli told Baltimore Magazine. “Baby boomers grew up on Flipper, but millennials grew up on Free Willy and The Cove. They are interested in these animals being treated more humanely.” Others are following suit. This September, the Clearwater Aquarium in Florida announced it would also end animal shows (1, 2), choosing to focus on rehabilitation and marine resources instead. When asked by the Guardian if SeaWorld would ever consider a similar move, the company said the terms “retire” and “sanctuary” are misplaced in the context of animal care. But added: “The short answer is no.”
Pressure is not only coming from the public and animal rights activists. Even the traditionally slow to respond travel industry has been reacting to its customers’ concerns. This year Southwest Airlines ended its 25-year partnership with SeaWorld, following a grassroots campaign, and British Airways, American Express and other companies - as well as some celebrities – with connections to SeaWorld have been targeted by petitions that have reached up to 100,000 signatures. At the same time, Virgin Holidays has declared it will no longer deal with organisations that continue to take marine mammals from the ocean and will continue to look at the issues surrounding using the animals for entertainment purposes. While that means it will still work with SeaWorld, Tim Zimmermann, co-writer and associate producer of Blackfish, says it is nonetheless a hugely significant statement. “The role the travel industry has is huge,” says Zimmermann, who continues to report on the issue for Outside magazine. “These are businesses. If they’re not selling tickets and not making money then maybe they’ll move away from dolphin shows and go more towards other forms of entertainment that everyone feels OK about. What Richard Branson is doing is the biggest thing happening right now in terms of how the industry will look in a couple of years and how it will be affected.”
The WDC also understands the role tourism has in the continued existence of these attractions. It has led a campaign to make tour operators more aware of existing guidance from the travel organisation Abta regarding animal welfare. If the operators were to adhere to the guidance properly, it says, they shouldn’t be promoting dolphinaria at all. “I’d like to see them moving away from supporting captivity and looking at supporting responsible wild whale and dolphin watching as an alternative,” says Cathy Williamson, UK captivity lead for WDC. “There shouldn’t be a future for the tourism industry supporting these things.” Meanwhile, leading animal welfare charity World Animal Protection are calling for marine attractions to pledge to cease taking cetaceans from the sea and end further captive breeding. “This would effectively spell the beginning of the end for the industry, a generational phase-out,” says Claire Bass, head of wildlife campaigns at the charity.
However, even if there isn’t a future for such attractions in the west (those asked predict public orca displays could end within the next decade, although dolphin displays could last much longer), many conservationists are concerned that the problem could move elsewhere. “In other parts of the world, like China, the industry is growing exponentially,” says the WDC’s Williamson. “In the last 10 years we’ve seen around 50 aquaria opening up in China that have captive belugas, bottlenose dolphins and now they’re looking at orcas as well. So, while we’re making progress in one part of the world, things are not going so well in other places.” This hasn’t gone unnoticed by SeaWorld. In its second-quarter report, published in August, CEO Jim Atchison announced “significant progress in our plans to expand our theme parks outside the US”, and indicating that the company has signed a letter of intent to co-develop parks in Asia, India and Russia. “That really could be the future of SeaWorld and these businesses,” says Zimmermann. “Which is to try to scale back and de-emphasise the orca shows in the US, but at the same time ramp them up in other countries where there’s much less concern about those issues.”
As for SeaWorld’s “Blue World Project”, Zimmermann remains uneasy about its implications. “The investment required to build those sorts of pools at a time when its cashflow and everything else is under pressure is pretty enormous,” he says. “So there’s a pretty good question to be asked about where that money is going to come from and what the payoff will be. You wonder whether in addition to the PR benefit - creating a better environment for the orcas - that it is also thinking that bigger pools mean it can breed more orcas and whether that might tie into an overseas strategy.” SeaWorld wouldn’t comment on its international expansion or how it would finance the Blue World Project but said public support for what it does remains healthy. However, Rose, who has years of first-hand experience dealing with the company (she was warning SeaWorld about the dangers of keeping orcas in captivity long before Braunchau’s death) remains baffled by the announcement. “If SeaWorld was smart it would recognise what’s going on with the public sentiment, stop fighting it the way it has been and get out ahead of the curve and do what the National Aquarium is proposing,” she says. She adds: “My concern is that it’s doing something far worse for the animals, although far more lucrative for itself. Which is that it might just be planning on selling its assets to a country that is absolutely hungering for them, which is China. And if it intends to do that, that’s a disaster for the animals.”
However, even as the issue moves from the developed to the developing world, so does the battle. Blackfish screenings are being organised in Singapore and Russia – the primary exporter of live captured whales – and Rose is working hard to raise awareness in China. South American countries are beginning to consider the implications of marine mammal facilities and last year a dolphinarium in South Korea was ordered to release four illegally captured dolphins back into the wild. “These things are happening all over the world, even in Asia,” says Rose. “This is not something that’s going to go away. The paradigm is shifting.”
Original post at http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/sep/12/seaworld-blackfish-marine-park-attractions-future
- 15 EU countries currently hold whales or dolphins
- There are currently 52 orcas in captivity around the world. Of these, 18 are wild-captured and 34 are captive-born. SeaWorld holds 23 out of the 24 captive-born orcas in the US
- Georgia Aquarium is currently fighting to import 18 beluga whales from Russia to the US for itself and other marine parks.
- The countries with the highest number of facilities with captive whales or dolphins are Japan (57), China (44), USA (34), Russia (24) and Mexico (24).
Posted also here.