A Compelling Case Against Captivity of Marine Mammals

In 1995, the US Marine Mammal Commission (MMC) invited AWI’s Dr. Naomi Rose (then with another organization) to co-author a chapter on captive marine mammals for a book it was publishing on marine mammal policy. Naomi and her colleagues would offer arguments against confining this diverse group of species within zoos, aquariums, and marine theme parks. The MMC asked SeaWorld representatives to present the arguments for such display.

By the time Naomi and her colleagues had finished their draft, however, SeaWorld had withdrawn from the project. Upon SeaWorld’s withdrawal, the MMC elected to have a third party write the entire chapter, presenting both sides of the debate. The “anti-cap” authors, not wishing their effort to be wasted, subsequently transformed their manuscript into an advocacy white paper entitled The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity. This report outlined what were, at the time, the best science-based arguments against the practice of holding these wide-ranging species in small tanks and pens.

Over the years, Naomi and others updated and expanded the report three times—in 1999, 2006, and 2009. In 2010, however, the captive marine mammal debate was thrust into the spotlight when Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld Florida, killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. Blackfish, a 2013 documentary about this incident, helped change the way the public viewed orcas, and indeed all cetaceans, in captivity. Given this, an update to The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity was clearly in order. But such a revision had to take a back seat to other priorities within a newly galvanized campaign.

Fast forward to 2019: A 5th edition, updated by Naomi and Dr. Chris Parsons, has now been published by AWI and World Animal Protection. In the decade that has passed since the 4th edition, the paradigm has shifted on the display of cetaceans—and perhaps all marine mammals. Through Blackfish, more people are aware of the controversy. There is more information from behind the scenes at zoos, aquariums, and theme parks that display these animals, as well as a great deal more field data on these hard-to-study mammals. We have learned much we did not know about whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, fur seals, seals, walruses, polar bears, manatees, dugongs, and sea otters—all species ecologically tied to an ocean environment—in their natural habitat. With the invention of ever-better radio and satellite tags, GPS, GoPro cameras, drones, and other technology, we have entered the realms of the deep—sometimes directly on the backs of the animals—as never before. Virtually everything we have learned underscores how unsuited these species are to confinement.

In 1995, the report had 56 endnotes; the 4th edition had 341. The latest edition has more than 600. The authors have added new chapters (including on “The Blackfish Effect”—a series of societal, policy, and business developments resulting from the film’s enormous reach) and new subsections. The main text offers logical, common-sense arguments accessible to the general public, while the endnotes are a deep dive—for students, journalists, policymakers, and activists—into the facts, science, evidence, and examples supporting these arguments. The 5th edition of The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity is meant as a one-stop-shop for those who wish to learn why marine mammals do not belong in captivity.