SeaWorld’s Tank Size Questioned by Congress, Thanks to the Little Film That Could, “Blackfish”

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(Courtesy Orca Network)
(Courtesy Orca Network)

According to (CNN), “Over three dozen members of Congress want the government to ensure the humane treatment of orca whales and other marine animals in captivity, following an outcry sparked by the documentary “Blackfish.””
“The letter, released Thursday and signed by 37 Democrats and one Republican to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, cites outdated regulations protecting those sea mammals and asserts that the current rules don’t reflect “updated science.””

“Our letter is asking USDA to update regulations for captive marine mammals under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which have not been revised since 2001. In May 2002, USDA proposed to update captive marine mammal standards for indoor facilities, outdoor facilities, water quality, space requirements, and swim-with-the-dolphin (SWLD) programs. During the comment period, USDA received numerous comments recommending changes to tank sizes and otherwise improving facilities for marine mammals. Yet twelve years after the public comment closed, USDA still has not finalized these regulations. Given the public interest in humane treatment of orcas and other marine mammals, especially in light of the death in 2010 of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum and the film Blackfish, it is incumbent on USDA to finalize this long-overdue process.”
(The entire letter can be viewed here.)


Protesters in Seattle seeking the freedom of "Namu", who died in captivity.
Protesters in Seattle seeking the freedom of “Namu”, who died in captivity.

After nearly a lifetime of watching the captive display industry exert power over and muffle the voices of anyone who tried to bring change to the orcas and other whales and dolphins suffering for entertainment I have been stunned by the changes that are on the horizon for these precious and sentient animals.
The documentary Blackfish, and the dedicated people who have worked tirelessly through the years to support the message that captivity is not viable for these animals, along with the reach of social media have come together to  reach the eyes, ears, and hearts of people the world over.
Among those who have come to understand the nature of marine mammal captivity are those who have the power to do something about it, and they are.
But most important of all are those of you the world over who stand up and speak up, and who refuse to support the amusement parks and aquariums that have shown indifference in the past. Because of you, aquariums are questioning the keeping of whales and dolphins in tanks of any size and are giving serious consideration to moving the animals that can’t be released into sea pens and lagoons, our Congress in the U.S. are stepping up to the plate, and countries such as India have banned the captivity of whales and dolphins entirely.

“Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.”
       Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
French poet, novelist, and playwright

Argentina Empty the Tanks
Argentina Empty the Tanks

Below is a reprint of a post I wrote in 2010 a,  a week and a half before Dawn Brancheau was killed. I fills in background on this issue and explains Congress’s role in protecting the whales and dolphins entrusted to government oversight.
I could write for days about how difficult, frustrating, annoying, and depressing it has been for those who have worked so hard on this issue, but I won’t.  I’m in a celebratory mood, and feeling deeply grateful to all who have worked to bring this to the attention of Congress, and to all those Congresspersons who are now stepping up to the plate.

Captive L-pod Orca Is Caught In A Legal Quagmire

Posted on February 12, 2010 | By 

One of the Southern Resident orcas captured in 1971 continues to reside in captivity at the old and tired Miami Seaquarium. This lonely whale was given the unfortunate name “Lolita” and lives in a sub-standard pool without companions of her species. She is getting old, has to perform tricks for her dinner, and has no other orcas for company. There is nothing for her to do but to circle her pool or lie on the bottom when she is not being forced to perform.

Lolita performs for sparse audiences in a sad theme park.

This confinement is cruel for an animal species which has been shown to be bright and highly social – orcas have one of the strongest family bonds in the animal kingdom. They rarely sleep and they swim hundreds of miles a day.
Day after day, month after month, year after year…Lolita’s life never changes.

Creative Commons Photo

Gone are the days when we enjoyed seeing large animals in small cages, or marveled at the sight of an elephant chained to a post on a concrete pad…yet magnificent whales and dolphins are allowed to be kept like giant fish in small tanks and are trained to do dumb tricks for our amusement. If they are allowed to breed, the families are separated, sold, or traded.
Caring people have been trying to help Lolita (a member of L-pod) for decades – writing letters, protesting, raising awareness – but Lolita’s captors are indifferent and uncaring, and they hide behind loopholes in the laws designed to protect our rare and valuable wild animals.
I have talked to people in Senator Murray’s office, at NOAA, and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (Governor Gregoire’s office directed my information request to them). Senator Cantwell’s office has never responded to emails or phone calls, on any of the orca issues (salmon, vessel regulations, or captivity).
What it boils down to is that Lolita needs a lawyer, and a good one. Here is why:
First, Lolita was captured right before the Marine Mammal Protection Act was implemented.
Second, because she was caught ‘pre-act’, the powers-that-be decided she should be directly excluded from the status of endangered that protects the rest of her family (the document reads ‘any member of J, K, or L pods’ in captivity).
Third, Animal Welfare is under the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture. When it came to determining what standards a dolphin or whale should have in captivity, they asked the theme parks and aquaria to set the standards, not biologists.
Fourth, the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (known as APHIS) is required to inspect and enforce compliance with the pathetic standards set by the theme parks. It is up to them to interpret the measurements, and they consistently measure Lolita’s pool incorrectly.
And fifth… no one in any of these organizations with whom I spoke feels they can do anything to change the standards set for captive cetaceans. But people made the decisions that allow a handful of individuals get very wealthy in the mistreatment of these gentle (and in the case of Lolita; endangered) animals. So it would seem that people can also change those laws and remedy the situation.
Meanwhile, individuals and groups continue their efforts to improve Lolita’s life. In 2009 Shelby Proie and used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain inspection records and to have their complaints addressed. As far as I can tell by looking at the documents, it looks like APHIS denied some of the information on the basis that “it’s release would cause a clearly unwarrented invasion of personal privacy”. The results that they did provide were not remarkable, other than to state that Lolita has the company of Pacific white-sided dolphins, and they are “biologically related” to orcas. That is like saying locking a human up with a monkey for company is equivalent to a human companion. That may be true for the owners of the theme park, but it certainly isn’t true for most of humanity.
It may take an Act of Congress to make it right – but given the fact that Lolita is one of only 89 whales like her in the world, shouldn’t that effort be made?

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