Issues > Marine Mammals in Captivity


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Nature's cruelest deception is the dolphin's smile especially when it serves as a false justification for continued captivity. Around the world dolphins and orcas are kept in small tanks to perform circus tricks for our entertainment. Industry leaders defend the educational merit of holding marine mammals in captivity, but what values are conveyed by dolphins jumping through hoops, particularly when the health and safety of those animals and their trainers are at risk.

Are Marine Parks Safe?

In recorded history not one orca has killed a human in the wild but since 1991 four people have died at the hands of orcas in captivity, and there are dozens of others that have nearly died over the last forty years. More than half of marine mammal workers and trainers have been injured by the animals they work with on a daily basis. More than one-third of the injuries are classified as severe – deep wounds, fractures, or requiring stitches. Of the 200 orcas now in captivity, two dozen (10%) have injured or killed people.1

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Dolphin and orca life expectancies are cut drastically in captivity. Dolphins will live for upwards of 40 and 50 years in the wild, but in parks their survival rates are staggeringly low. At SeaWorld San Antonio, the average lifespan of a captive-bred dolphin is four yearsand at SeaWorld San Diego, 24 dolphins perished from pneumonia in 25 years.3  Less than twenty orcas are known to have survived more than 20 years in captivity, while maximum life expectancy in the wild is 60 to 90 years.4   Nonetheless the captive industry continues to downplay higher mortality rates and claim that marine mammals are safer and healthier in their care.

What is US Policy?

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1994) any entity offering “an education or conservation program based on professionally recognized standards of the public display community,” can legally import, breed, and take from the wild, marine mammals and use them with little to no further oversight. And because any person holding marine mammals for the purpose of public display is also a member of the public display community, they can legally set said, 'standards' – a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house. After the recent killings of two trainers within two months by SeaWorld orcas, a Congressional Subcommittee convened in April 2010 to bring into question the educational merit of marine mammals in captivity and the conflict of interest that exists when commercial entities (in this case, the captive dolphin industry) self-regulates.

Members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as well as the international Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (the body currently advising Congress), U.S. industry leaders, were complicit in the Taiji dolphin capture until the law’s passage in 1994. It is hardly a bold assertion to make that it is not appropriate for members of the captive dolphin industry to now be regulating the legal provision, which allows them to capture and hold marine mammals in the first place. OPS contends that this track record constitutes an ethical conflict of interest.

1, 4 Naomi A. Rose, E.C.M Parsons, and Richard Farinato, Humane Society of the United States, World Society for the Protection of Animals. The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity, Fourth Edition. May 2009.
2 Jeffrey Wright. So wrong, but thanks for all the fish, A SeaWorld ethics primer, San Antonio Current. April 14, 2010.
3 Sun Database: U.S. Marine Mammal Inventory.

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