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The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity

The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity

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Published by Beatriz Tur
Marine mammals in captivity
Marine mammals in captivity

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Beatriz Tur on May 03, 2013
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Several small whale species are commonly held in captivity, and

their mortality rates are much higher than the rate for bottlenose

dolphins. Orcas and beluga whales are the small whales most

often seen in captivity; false killer whales are also popular.

Of at least 193 orcas held in captivity since 1961 (wild-caught or

captive-born), 151 (78 percent) are now dead.296

Almost all of the

orcas in the United States, and about half of the captive orcas kept

worldwide, are owned by SeaWorld. For years the corporation per-

sistently and erroneously maintained that the maximum life span

of orcas was 35 years,297

but its website now states instead that “no

one knows for sure how long killer whales live,” and that they live

“at least” 35 years.298

In fact, a peer-reviewed study using estab-

lished methods of photo-identification and conducted since the

early 1970s has identified several orcas in Washington State and

British Columbia who are at least 50 years of age now. First

observed in 1973 as adults (at least 15 years of age), they are still

alive today.299

The maximum life span for orcas is currently estimat-

ed to be 60 years for males and 80 or 90 years for females.300

Various analytical approaches have demonstrated that the overall

mortality rate of captive orcas is at least two and a half times as

high as that of wild orcas (see Table 1), and age- and sex-specific

annual mortality rates range from two to six times as high.301

Twenty-two orcas have died at SeaWorld parks since 1985:

four were young calves, and the others were in their teens and

twenties. To date, less than 20 orcas are known to have survived

more than 20 years in captivity, and only two have survived

in captivity for more than 35 years.302

As stated earlier, captivity

eliminates the uncertainties of foraging and the pressures of avoid-

ing predators, pollution, and parasites while it provides veterinary

care. Nevertheless, captive orcas continue to experience a greatly

and significantly increased risk of dying at any given time in life

than do wild orcas. Their size and complex physical and social

requirements clearly cause them to suffer serious negative

consequences when they are confined in tanks.

For most pinniped species in captivity, captive breeding has
been successful and the goal now is to limit pregnancies.
Photo: BigStockPhoto/Glenda Powers

Too few manatees are held in captivity to determine mortality
or birthrates.



As for birth rates, after more than 45 years in which at least 193

orcas have been held in captivity, with 83 known pregnancies,

only 40 viable calves (surviving past one year) have been pro-

duced (a 51.8 percent mortality rate).303

Therefore, orca birth rates

and infant mortality rates have been at best the same or slightly

better in captivity than in the wild, but, given that some captive

data are almost certainly missing, are likely to have been worse.304

This parallels the high infant mortality rates observed for other

wide-ranging predator species in captivity, a situation that scientists

have ascribed to stress and physiological dysfunction.305

The public display industry often states that the high infant mortali-

ty rate in captivity is unsurprising, given the high infant mortality

rate in the wild, but this position contradicts the industry’s argu-

ment that captivity shields wildlife from the rigors of the harsh

natural environment. The display industry engages in hypocritical

reasoning. On the one hand, it claims that captivity is safer than

the wild, in which case the mortality rates of captive-born calves

(and captive adults, for that matter) should be lower than in

the wild. On the other hand, after every failed birth, it states that

captive infant mortality rates similar to those in the wild should

be expected and acceptable.

Not enough is known about the life history parameters of wild

belugas or false killer whales to make a legitimate comparison be-

tween wild and captive populations of these species at this time.

However, preliminary analyses of the small database for beluga

whales indicate that this species may demonstrate increased

mortality in captivity.306

Recent re-evaluation of ageing techniques

suggests, in fact, that beluga whales may have maximum life spans

far greater than previously thought. Sectioning teeth and counting

growth rings, the previously accepted method by which beluga

ages were determined, may underestimate age by a factor of two,

meaning wild beluga whales, previously thought to have a maxi-

mum life span of 30 years, can actually live as long as 60 years.307

In captivity, beluga whales routinely die before they reach 30 years

of age—very few have surpassed this milestone.308

The captive-birth

rates for these two species are not impressive either; there was

only one surviving captive-born false killer whale and six living

captive-born belugas recorded in the June 2006 Marine Mammal

Inventory Report.309

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