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Born Free USA column: The Blackfish Effect


Adam M Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, continues his monthly column for Wildlife Extra with his views on marine mammals being kept in captivity

Nearly 20 years ago I handcuffed myself, with a small collection of other protestors, to the entrance of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, on Memorial Day weekend to speak out against the keeping of marine mammals in captivity. We made the evening news. Not much else changed for those poor animals.

Two decades later, there is a groundswell of support for the protection of marine mammals in captivity. At last, aquariums are rethinking their position on keeping dolphins; SeaWorld is floundering; legislators are finally paying attention; and the public is critically considering whether dolphins, orcas, and beluga whales belong in concrete bathtubs from which they will never be freed.

SeaWorld has profited from the forced performances of its captive orcas for decades, raking in billions of dollars from the whales’ coerced and unnatural tricks. The parks successfully projected an illusion of enthusiastic orcas playing with their trainers, putting on shows that are fun for audiences and whales alike. This image was abruptly and thoroughly shattered last summer, however, with the release of the shocking documentary, Blackfish. Since it exploded into theatres in 2013 and its message reverberated through the media, SeaWorld has suddenly found its reputation and revenue drowning. 

In 2013, SeaWorld’s revenue was an estimated $1.46 billion, but the first quarter of 2014 brought them only $212.3 million: an 11 per cent decrease year-on-year, and worse than the $215.1 million expected. In November 2013, Market Watch reported that SeaWorld stock had been sinking, eventually reaching a 25 per cent decrease from the highs reached the year before. Meanwhile, SeaWorld attendance dropped 4 per cent in 2013, while other theme park attendance worldwide jumped 5.4 per cent. SeaWorld blames the weather for this pattern: an argument that is less than convincing. SeaWorld now reports a 13 per cent drop in attendance for the first three months of 2014.

There is a new television advertising campaign about the care they provide their animals; the educational value of the performances. SeaWorld executives can smell trouble, and trouble is brewing.                                        

Compassionate citizens took a stand against the SeaWorld float that was scheduled for the annual New York department store, Macy’s, Thanksgiving Day Parade. Several celebrities have cancelled concerts at SeaWorld, including Pat Benatar, the Beach Boys, Trisha Yearwood, Willie Nelson, Heart, Barenaked Ladies, Martina McBride, and Trace Adkins. Willie Nelson put it best when he declared: "I don't agree with the way they treat their animals...What they do at SeaWorld is not OK.” 

Now, legislators have taken notice of the shifting tide of public opinion. Policy-makers in both California and New York introduced bills this year to end performances by orcas at entertainment parks. The California bill even sought to ban orca captive breeding programmes and require current captive orcas to be retired to sea pens, as well, which would have effectively shut down SeaWorld’s San Diego Park. Neither bill passed, but the door remains open to legislative action.


Even the US Congress is getting in on the action. In May, 38 members of Congress sent a letter to the Department of Agriculture, demanding updated regulations for captive marine mammals in the country. This letter was followed by an amendment introduced by Congress Representatives Huffman and Schiff, both of California, which seeks to provide $1 million toward a study on the effects of captivity on orcas, with the goal of using this data to update regulations. In June, this amendment passed the House of Representatives unanimously.

Though SeaWorld’s reputation is going down the drain, not one orca in the US has been released into the wild. The numbers in captivity in the country still stand at 23 orcas across SeaWorld’s three locations, and one at the Miami Seaquarium. 

The fight is far from over, but we have much reason for optimism. SeaWorld can’t survive without its cheering audiences, and as those dwindling crowds decide not to fill the seats and refuse to endorse the suffering evident before their eyes, SeaWorld’s viability slips. And others will follow.

Orcas belong off the coast of Iceland – not in American cities like Miami. Beluga whales belong in Russian sea waters – not in the Georgia Aquarium. Dolphins belong in the warm waters of the Caribbean – not at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. Wildlife belongs in the wild.