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News | Scientists Call for California Commission to End Captive Orca Breeding | Marine Mammal Project
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Scientists Call for California Commission to End Captive Orca Breeding

| Mark J. Palmer, International Marine Mammal Project
Topics: Dolphin and Whale Trade, Dolphins

With the construction and expansion of SeaWorld’s orca tanks in San Diego now before the California Coastal Commission for approval on Thursday, Oct. 8th, a group of scientists have come together to propose that the Commission add a condition to the permit approval in which SeaWorld would no longer breed orcas in captivity in San Diego.  The condition would further restrict SeaWorld from bringing in or removing any captive orcas from their San Diego facility, with exceptions for retirement of captive orcas to a sea pen and for bringing in stranded and sick individuals for rehabilitation and return to the ocean.

The Commission meets in Long Beach, CA, for a hearing and vote on the permit.

Signers of the Scientists’ Statement include Dr. Lori Marino, Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Lindy Wielgart, Dr. Diana Reiss, Dr. Toni Frohoff, Dr. Paul & Helena Spong, and Jean-Michele Cousteau.  A separate letter of support was also filed with the Commission signed by a number of environmental and animal welfare organizations, Including Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project.

The full text of the Scientists’ Statement:

Scientist Statement Supporting Conditions for the SeaWorld Blue World Project Permit

Sept. 15, 2015

To: The California Coastal Commission

We, the undersigned members of the marine mammal scientific community, wish to express our support for conditioning any permit issued for the construction of Sea World’s Blue World Project, to bring an end to the current breeding program and prohibit any acquisition or disposition (i.e., entry to or exit from the facility) of captive killer whales (Orcinus orca) for breeding, performance or entertainment purposes.

The Commission’s duty is to ensure that marine resources are maintained, enhanced, and where feasible, restored. We believe that killer whales are marine resources, protected under the Coastal Act and that they are inherently unsuited to captivity, due to their intelligence, sociality, acoustic needs, longevity, ranging habits, and size. Captive display does not enhance their survival as a species and, in the past, has actually played a significant role in the current endangered status of one population in the northeastern Pacific, the “southern resident” killer whales. This population is listed under the US Endangered Species Act and essentially had an entire generation of young animals removed during the 1960s and 1970s when the population was targeted by live capture operators for sale to public display facilities such as SeaWorld. Many of the current whales on display in SeaWorld parks are descendants of these captured whales.

The continued practice of displaying this species in captivity in the United States and elsewhere has apparently encouraged a resumption of killer whale captures in Russia, where approximately 10 young whales have been taken for sale to China and Russia since 2012. In order to stop these almost certainly unsustainable captures – in short, to restore this marine resource – killer whale captive display must end worldwide. The California Coastal Commission, with its long record of progressive environmental decisions, should lead the way.

When killer whales were first displayed for the public in the early 1960s, the world knew little about their ecology and behavior. Studies on population dynamics and behavioral ecology of wild killer whales did not begin until a decade later and meaningful data on their social structure were not widely published until 1990. Based on what we now know about this species, we can say that it does not adapt well to captivity.

Given the dimensions of the planned new enclosure, the Blue World Project is an improvement, albeit a limited improvement, in their captive conditions. However, it is still far smaller than any natural home range for killer whales and since it is a "display tank" its construction is primarily designed to enhance the public’s viewing experience. As such, the tank will only be available to some of the orca, some of the time, and in no way constitutes enhanced “habitat” for all of the whales.

We support any improvement in captive husbandry conditions, but we also support phasing out the practice of holding killer whales in captivity within the state of California. We therefore urge the Commission to condition any permit for this project to prohibit captive breeding, artificial insemination, and transfer of whales and their genetic material. We agree that most of the killer whales in California are not candidates for release to the wild, but they can be retired from rigidly scheduled performances.

The science on the nature of killer whales and their compromised welfare in captivity – and common sense – has long since provided evidence that this species is inherently unsuited to confinement. Blue World will still be a concrete tank. We believe that while this increase in space may improve the welfare of the 11 killer whales at SeaWorld San Diego, these permit conditions will allow the orderly phasing out of exhibiting this species, an essential outcome to enhance and restore this marine resource.


Jane Goodall; PhD, DBE, Jane Goodall Institute

Jean-Michael Cousteau, Ocean Futures Society

Lindy Wielgart; Ph.D., Department Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Soctia

Chris Parsons; PhD, FMBA, FRSB, FRGS, Assoc. Professor Environmental ScienceGeorge Mason University, Fairfax

Mark Orams; Professor, Health and Environmental Sciences, AUT University, New Zealand

Guiseppe Notarbartolodi Sciara; Ph.D., Tethy Research Institute, Milano, Italy

Leslie A. Cormick; Ph.D., Chair Department of Environmental Science Department, Alaska Pacific University

Roger L. Reep; Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Florida

Karsetn Brensin, Ph.D.; Meeresbiologe & Verhaltensforscher

Deborah A. Giles, Ph.D.; Univerity of California Davis

Diana Reiss, Ph.D.; Professor, Hunter College, City University of New York

Gerson Cohen, Ph.D.; Great Whale Conservancy

Samuel Hung, Ph.D.; Chariman, Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society

Erich Hoyt, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, United Kingdom

Toni Frohoff, Ph.D., TerraMar Research, California

Elizabeth Oriel, MSc, SONAR

Dr. Paul Spong & Helena Symonds, Pacific Orca Society/Orca Lab, Alert Bay. B.C. Canada

Maddalena Bearzi, Ph.D; Ocean Conservation Society, President, Marina del Rey, CA


Our thanks to all the signers of the statement.  We appreciate their support for phasing out orca captivity in California.


What You Can Do:

Please attend the hearing.  For details:http://dolphinproject.org/blog/post/reminder-please-attend-oct-8-ca-coastal-commission-meeting