Animal protection groups and a growing number of scientists maintain that the lives of captive marine mammals are impoverished, that people do not receive an accurate picture of a species from captive representatives, and that the trade in live marine mammals negatively impacts populations and habitats.
Some facilities promote themselves as conservation enterprises; however, few are involved in substantial conservation efforts. Rather than enhancing wild populations, facilities engaged in captive breeding tend merely to create a surplus of animals who may never be released into the wild and are therefore only used to propagate captive “collections.”
Contrary to popular perception, captures of marine mammals from the wild are not a thing of the past. They continue around the world in regions where very little is known about the status of populations. Even for those species not currently under threat, the lack of scientific assessment or regard for welfare makes the proliferation of these operations an issue of global concern.
Fierce debate continues over the issue of mortality rates and longevity, especially of whales and dolphins, in captivity. The most conclusive data are for orcas: their annual mortality rates are significantly higher in captivity than in the wild and have not improved in recent years. The mortality data related to live captures are more straightforward—capture is undeniably stressful and, in dolphins, results in a six-fold increase in mortality risk during and immediately after capture.
Public display facilities maintain that they enhance the lives of marine mammals in captivity by protecting them from the rigors of the natural environment. The truth is that marine mammals have evolved physically and behaviorally to survive these rigors. For example, nearly every kind of marine mammal, from sea lion to dolphin, travels large distances daily in a search for food.
In captivity, wild-caught marine mammals gradually experience the atrophy of many of their natural behaviors and are cut off from the conditions that allow the expression of cultural traits such as specialized vocalizations (“language”). Natural feeding and foraging patterns are completely lost. Stress-related conditions such as ulcers, stereotypical behaviors including pacing and self-mutilation, and abnormal aggression within groups frequently develop in predators denied the opportunity to forage. Other natural behaviors, such as those associated with dominance, mating, and maternal care, are altered in captivity, which can have a substantial impact on the animals.
Additionally, the risk of disease transmission in both directions (marine mammal to human and human to marine mammal) is very real.
Public display facilities often promote themselves as stranding and research centers. In fact, most stranded marine mammals, especially whales and dolphins, die after they are rescued; few survive rehabilitation to be released to the wild. Many releases are not monitored for success, and some animals, despite their suitability for release, are retained for public display. As for research, most studies using marine mammals in public display facilities are focused on improving captive care and maintenance practices—very few of them address crucial conservation questions.
The ethical concerns raised by marine mammal captivity are especially marked for dolphins. Behavioral and psychological literature abounds with examples of the sophisticated cognition of these animals. Their intelligence appears at least to match that of the great apes and perhaps of human toddlers—they are self-aware and capable of abstract thinking.
With any marine mammal exhibit, the needs of the visiting public come before the needs of the animals. Enclosures are designed to make the animals readily visible, not necessarily comfortable. Even in the largest facilities, captive dolphins see their room to move decreased enormously, having access to less than one ten-thousandth of one percent of their normal habitat size. Viewing captive animals gives the public a false picture of the animals’ natural lives. Worse yet, it desensitizes people to captivity’s inherent cruelties. For so many captive marine mammals, the world is a tiny enclosure, and life is devoid of naturalness.