Thursday, July 12, 2007

Live Captures of Whales and Dolphins

The process of capturing cetaceans for the aquarium and marine park industry is cruel and invasive. Removal from their natural habitats requires chasing them with motorboats, netting and restraining them, and hauling them out of the water, all while the animals struggle to escape.

Seine-net captures is the most common way to catch dolphins. Small speedboats chase the animals until they are corralled and confined within the net. They are then placed in slings or onto stretchers and lifted out of the water by several people and into the boat.

Others are caught as they “bow ride” or swim in front of the boats. A pole attached to a collar and net is lowered over the head of the dolphin. Once the collar is around the animal the net attachment is broken. The animal swims away and becomes entangled.

Some animals become trapped in the nets and drown. Studies measuring changes in blood chemistry, stress protein levels and other factors have been directly linked to dolphins being pursued, surrounded and caught in the nets. Heart lesions have also been found in dead animals, which researchers link to stress.

Captives are deposited into small holding areas, sometimes no more than a wooden box with plastic tarpaulins, before they are transported by truck or plane to the aquarium or marine park. The journey may take several hours and their chances of dying from shock or stress-induced illnesses increase. According to a 1995 study, death rates for newly captured bottlenose dolphins shot up six-fold during their first five days of confinement.

In 1977, Marineland of Canada attempted to transport eight wild-caught bottlenose dolphins from Mexico to Canada when the plane illegally landed in Texas. U.S. officials seized the dolphins, releasing six of them into the Gulf of Mexico. They had been in transit for over eighteen hours and were reportedly going into shock before release.

The remaining two dolphins were handed over to Marineland and flown to Canada. The dolphins arrived at the park approximately thirty-six hours after their initial removal from Mexican waters. One of the dolphins died en route.

Orcas and belugas fare no better. Video taken in 1999 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) shows Russian whalers rounding up belugas for the aquarium industry. The whales are seen thrashing about in nets, the water red with blood.

Some of the animals are hauled out of the water and lowered into boxes not much bigger than the whales themselves while tractors drag the others across the beach by their flukes (tails). The animals are then dumped on the floor of the aircraft, without support or restraint, to the aquarium or marine park.

Impacts on Wild Populations

The removal of animals from the wild can have negative impacts on the remaining individuals. A 2004 study on bottlenose dolphins indicates that certain animals are responsible for keeping their communities together. The loss of key members can be detrimental to the group.

Removing females may also cause the deaths of their dependent young. Research on wild orca populations show that when the mother dies, the young males have been known to die shortly after. Historically, captures have focused mainly on females; approximately two-thirds of all bottlenose dolphins captured have been females.

Captures of belugas, which take place in the summer when the animals travel into the shallow estuaries to feed, have been known to separate mothers and young, and cause strandings. Spontaneous abortions by pregnant females have also been recorded during capture attempts (one study revealed that 54% of females in Hudson Bay were pregnant, lactating, or both).

Discarded animals also suffer from the hunt and it is unknown how many die from the ordeal. Marine Animal Productions in Mississippi, who once rented dolphins to Canada’s Wonderland, estimates that for every dolphin taken, “three to four are encircled, handled, evaluated and released.” The numbers are even higher for belugas:

· In 1984, a joint Mystic Aquarium and New York Aquarium operation captured fourteen white whales to obtain four.
· In 1985, the Mystic Aquarium captured ten to obtain two.
· In 1987, the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the New York Aquarium captured ten to obtain three.
· In 1988, Sea World captured eighteen to obtain four.
· In 1992, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium captured twenty-four to obtain four.

Although captures from North American waters have declined over the years, they are increasing in other parts of the world. Russia and the Caribbean still remain significant sources of wild cetaceans for marine parks and aquariums in the United States and Canada.

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