Sea Sanctuaries for Cetaceans: A Growing Reality

This past Sunday, December 13th, Dr. Lori Marino, Executive Director of The Kimmela Center, and Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, presented a day-long public workshop entitled Sea-Pen Sanctuaries: Progressing Toward Better Welfare for Captive Cetaceans.

The workshop focused on the key issues relevant to developing and maintaining a permanent sea sanctuary in North America for formerly captive and injured/sick whales and dolphins. There are sanctuaries for other large highly social and wide-ranging mammals, such as the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in California, but there are none anywhere in the world yet for dolphins and whales.

The standing-room-only workshop was held at the 2015 Society for Marine Mammalogy conference in San Francisco and included presentations from some of the most experienced scientists, veterinary clinicians, engineers, attorneys, trainers, business experts and advocates in this field.

Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Heather Rally discussed the particular psychological and medical issues that would need to be addressed when caring for dolphins or whales who come from years of exploitation in the theme-park industry. She described the effort to develop a sea sanctuary for cetaceans as “an unprecedented undertaking for the scientific and veterinary communities in this country, with great potential to dramatically improve that lives of captive orcas in the U. S.”

Don Baur, an attorney previously on the Marine Mammal Commission, explored the legal issues that would need to be navigated to set up a sanctuary on the North American coast.

John Hargrove, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld and author of Beneath the Surface, presented information about the striking differences between sanctuary life and theme park life for orcas from a training perspective.

Ed Stewart, cofounder of PAWS, laid out the common challenges of creating a sanctuary for large wild animals either on land or in the sea.

Joan Gonzalvo, a biologist with the Tethys Research Institute, discussed similar efforts for formerly captive bottlenose dolphins in Italy.

Courtney Vail, campaigns manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, brought us up to date on further ongoing efforts in Europe.

Rob Laidlaw, Executive Director of Zoocheck, discussed candidate sites for a sanctuary in Canada and some of the advantages and disadvantages of locating such a facility in various provinces.

And Michael Parks, field engineer for the Keiko Project, educated everyone on the “nuts and bolts” of building a sanctuary for orcas.

The audience consisted mainly of marine mammal scientists, advocates and business experts, along with some members of the captive theme park industry.

All in all, the workshop was a valuable exploration of the new frontier in our changing relationship with dolphins and whales: from captives, born and bred for our entertainment, to fellow beings who deserve respite from the ways our species continues to abuse and exploit them, both in captivity and in the wild.

15 Replies to “Sea Sanctuaries for Cetaceans: A Growing Reality”

  1. Dear Lori and Naomi,
    I was in attendance at the workshop and I would like to commend you on approaching this groundbreaking conversation with the utmost organization, diversity and professionalism. It was a great day with an abundance of pertinent and thought-provoking information! I look forward to the continued dialog in creating these sanctuaries, and I look forward to the day when the currently held captive cetaceans can live the remainder of their lives in their natural habitat . . . as nature intended.
    Kathy Cohen

  2. Standing room only implies that those in attendance all supported this plan. However, many came to voice opposition to this potentially dangerous idea.

    1. Jason – We welcomed everyone and provided a forum for all points of view. The fact that it was “standing room only” does say something about the fact that this is an idea drawing a lot of interest. Thanks for your comment. – Lori

    2. In what sense is the idea of a sea sanctuary “potentially dangerous”? The only danger I can see is to the financial bottom line of the whale abusement facilities we euphemistically call oceanariums

    3. Actually, only one attendee expressed opposition to the concept of sea-pen sanctuaries. Others who work with captive cetaceans were very constructive with their input. Two researchers expressed concern not with the sanctuary concept but simply with the idea that one day captive cetaceans will no longer be available for research, but in fact sanctuary cetaceans WILL be available for non-invasive research and results from such research will probably be more applicable to free-ranging populations than results from animals living in concrete tanks.

      1. T. Williams, Ph.D. December 29, 2015 at 11:08 pm

        It should be kept in mind that this workshop was set up to discuss the logistics of creating sea pen sanctuaries for cetaceans. To prevent derailing this purpose, the attendees were specifically instructed by the moderators not to engage in opinions regarding the efficacy of such an effort. Only one person did not keep with the instructions.

  3. Sanctuary concept is not flawed but many times the participants are. So unless Naomi Rose has been rehabilitated & retrained from her poor performance, contributory negligence & support of Ric O’Barry in ’92-’94 that rendered the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act with dead dolphins & Navy dolphins slated for release back in 25’x25′ Navy pens, I have little hope that future efforts will realize that success these already abused marine mammals deserve. Glad to see after decades of facilitating O’Barry’s con artistry this group has cut him from the roster….never too late except for the many who could & should have been helped by Sugar loaf!? Co-founder SDS & MMC Lead Rescuer, Rick Trout

    1. Dear Rick – We try not to encourage ad hominem and unproductive remarks on this website. You have your own ongoing efforts and we understand our choices may not be the same as yours. The current workshop is about drawing from our past experiences and moving on. We wish you good luck. All the best, Lori

      1. No Lori you will need the luck if you do not address the misdeeds & monkey wrenching done by some of your colleagues in destroying a viable concept @ Sugar loaf. If you cannot take criticism & lessons from that failure & those involved in Sugarloafs demise, you risk mindless repetition of failure. My goals of rescuing & releasing over 50 marine mammals with the help of folks like Jeff Foster have been realized. Glad to share what works with those who would like to repeat success not failure. Good luck improving on the past. It needs improving!

  4. Glad to see that progress is being made on this important topic.

  5. It was an honor to participate in this workshop and to hear from colleagues working towards the creation of a sanctuary or refuge where captive cetaceans can be hosted indefinitely in conditions that are as close as possible to these animals’ natural habitats, and where, if appropriate, rehabilitation procedures can be implemented. I consider this a key initiative as part of the process of transitioning from an era in which it was considered normal to hold dolphins in captivity to a new era of no-captivity. I want to thank all workshop participants and particularly the two workshop organizers Lori and Naomi. Great job!

  6. […] article originally appeared on Kimmela. It has been reprinted here with […]

  7. Current federal policy in the USA does not support transferring captive-born cetaceans to the wild. Disease transmission, genetic incompatibility, and low survival probabilities are all concerns that have been discussed in past considerations of releasing cetaceans from managed care to the wild. How will the sanctuary proponents deal with current law and numerous published papers that supported the federal decisions? Also, many (in some areas, all) cetaceans that are rescued by stranding organizations around the USA are required by NOAA to be euthanized due to health and disease considerations. How will the sanctuary concept improve conservation of these animals if current federal policy doesn’t allow them to be brought into already existing rehabilitation facilities?

    1. The sanctuary concept does not entail release to the wild. It calls for the development of secure facilities within which certain captive-held animals could be maintained to improve their quality of life. The protocols that would be used to determine which animals could be transferred to sanctuaries would ensure that disease transmission is not an issue, and the separation barriers and sanctuary design would avoid any risk of genetic mixing. The facilities established at the sanctuaries would almost certainly exceed the current standards for cetaceans in captivity under the Animal Welfare Act, so the health and welfare of the animals would most likely be enhanced by movement to these locations.

      As for stranded animals that are considered to be in poor health and in need of euthanasia, it is very possible that no facility, including a sanctuary, would make rehabilitation possible. The question of whether animals that are too sick or injured to be candidates for rehabilitation is a medical decision made by qualified staff that, in most cases, does not relate to the nature of the rehabilitation facility into which the animal would be placed. Nonetheless, it is possible that the availability of a sanctuary setting may, in certain cases, present opportunities for rehabilitation that would provide an animal with a pathway to survival that otherwise would not be the case for a rehab facility at an aquarium or other center. The ability to provide cetaceans with extra space and a natural environment setting could very well be the prescription for rehabilitation that could not be provided in a typical facility, but that would be possible at a sanctuary.

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