May 6, 2010
Posted: 02:27 PM ET
Louie Psihoyos directed the Academy Award winning documentary “The Cove” & is executive director of The Oceanic Preservation Society. The views and opinions expressed in his commentary are those of the author.
By Louie Psihoyos
After the recent killings of two trainers within two months by SeaWorld orcas, a Congressional Subcommittee convened last week 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. I was honored to have been invited to testify before the Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife largely because of my first-hand experience gathered during the filming of my Academy Award winning documentary “The Cove,” which exposes the largest dolphin slaughter in the world happening every year in Taiji, Japan. In this film, you witness first-hand what the captive dolphin industry doesn’t want you to see – that the demand for marine mammals has lead to the death of more than 20,000 dolphins each year. That we know of.
Members on both sides of the issue provided passionate testimony regarding the “educational benefits” (or lack thereof) of keeping marine mammals in captivity. And as expected, with $8.4 billion on the table, it was a heated debate to say the least.
The legislative loophole that allows marine mammals to be held in captivity for public display came in 1994 as part of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. These regulations dictate that any program which offers “an education or conservation program based on professionally recognized standards of the public display community” could from that point on, import, breed, and take from the wild, marine mammals and use with little to no further oversight. The unfortunate reality here is that the regulations delineating the standards for such programs were never promulgated. And because any person holding marine mammals for the purpose of public display is a member of the public display community, they are the legal entity responsible for identifying the “standard.” The foundation of the loophole is self-regulation – a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house.
I have come to oppose the circus-like shows that take place every day at marine mammal parks and aquariums across the globe. It is the captivity industry’s growing demand for dolphins to furnish these shows that fuels the largest slaughter of dolphins in the world.
Fueling the dolphin slaughter witnessed in my film “The Cove” is the demand for new show dolphins, young females primarily for the captive dolphin industry. I have been to the town of Taiji, where the slaughter takes place, seven times. Every time a pod is driven ashore, frightened and disoriented, a line of dolphin trainers from all over the world, sometimes as many as 30, are waiting to cull the best looking dolphins for dolphin shows. A trained dolphin can fetch up to $200,000. The rest are taken around a corner into a secret cove, slaughtered in the most brutal way imaginable, and sold as meat for about $600 each. The trainers can see the boats leaving the secret cove the following day, with dolphin carcasses piled high in the boats.
Although the Marine Mammal Protect Act prohibits the American industry from collecting dolphins from the drives, a document uncovered by my team and presented to the Subcommittee during the hearing, shows that members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums were complicit in the Taiji capture until the law’s passage in 1994, and we have further evidence that foreign members of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, the body advising Congress, are trying to acquire animals from other similar drives in the Solomon Islands. 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. It is our strong view that this track record constitutes an ethical conflict of interest.
Over the last five years I traveled around the world investigating the captive dolphin industry for our movie and while I did not have an opinion going into my research – I have strong opinions now that echo the sentiments of the oceans most topside advocate, Jacques Cousteau, who once famously said, “The educational benefits of watching a dolphin in captivity would be like learning about humanity by only observing a prisoner in solitary confinement.”
Throughout the history of mankind there is not a single reported death of a human by an orca in the wild – ever. However, one SeaWorld orca, Tilikum, taken from his mother in Iceland at the age of two has killed three people his lifetime. The industry would like the public to think that those deaths were a statistical anomaly or that Tilikum's trainers are to blame. However, just two months before, on Christmas Eve, one of four SeaWorld rent-a-orcas crushed and killed its trainer Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque dolphinarium in the Canary Islands while he was practicing for a Christmas show. These accidents are not just a recent phenomenon.
Of the 200 orcas now in captivity, two dozen (10%) have injured or killed people. It is irresponsible of those in the captivity industry to portray orcas as playful, highly intelligent pets when it serves to entertain an audience, and then compare them to wild predatory animals when they need an explanation for extreme and aberrant behavior.
The industry also argues that seeing orcas in a dolphin show is the only way a economically less fortunate child or family would be able to see these majestic creatures in an “authentic” experience. Yet, how many economically disadvantaged families that you know can really afford to fly to Orlando, pay for hotels and transportation and shell out the $79 per person entrance fee to go see this ‘authentic’ experience?
As I’ve seen many times during dozens of expeditions around the world, dolphins in the wild do not perform synchronized double flips, spit water, or moonwalk for dead fish. In fact, if you approached a dolphin in the wild and engaged in the way that do at some of these parks you could be arrested under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, fined, and could be put in jail! We teach our children that feeding or harassing animals in the wild is unacceptable - yet at an amusement park for $79 a day, we call that an education. It’s not merely ironic; it is poor education. The circus shows need to stop.
For more information on this issue and many others impacting our oceans and oceanic wildlife, and to get involved, visit www.opsociety.org.
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