Ac­tivists call for whale refuges, but can they stay afloat?

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

A Hawaii ma­rine park’s pur­chase of Kina, a 40-year-old false killer whale long used in echolo­ca­tion re­search, has reignited a de­bate about cap­tive ma­rine mam­mals and the places that care for them. Most of the world’s cap­tive cetaceans - dol­phins, whales and por­poises - are now born in ma­rine-park breed­ing pro­grams, though some are still taken from the wild.

Since they’re so ex­pen­sive to care for, even ma­rine mam­mals used solely for re­search, like Kina, of­ten end up at at­trac­tions like Oahu’s Sea Life Park. An­i­mal-rights ac­tivists are call­ing for the cre­ation of ocean-based refuges, where they say cap­tive ma­rine an­i­mals could re­tire and live a life closer to nature. At least two groups al­ready are work­ing to cre­ate such sanc­tu­ar­ies, but ex­perts ques­tion whether they can stay afloat. A closer look at the dis­cus­sion:

How do ma­rine mam­mals end up in cap­tiv­ity?

In the past, many were cap­tured from the wild, taken from their fam­ily pods and put in ma­rine parks. In Ja­pan, fish­er­men would round up scores of dol­phins and whales in coves, killing most but se­lect­ing some for sale to parks. That fish­ery has been widely crit­i­cized, and most ma­rine parks no longer take its an­i­mals.

Kina is be­lieved to be the last liv­ing cap­tive an­i­mal in the United States taken from a Ja­panese dol­phin drive. To­day, most ma­rine mam­mals in parks are born in cap­tive breed­ing pro­grams that orig­i­nated when wild an­i­mals were taken from the ocean. Parks and aquar­i­ums have long moved an­i­mals among dif­fer­ent fa­cil­i­ties to en­sure ge­netic di­ver­sity but can now mail sperm from their an­i­mals to other parks to en­sure a healthy pop­u­la­tion.

What types of sites hold th­ese an­i­mals?

Most re­search labs around the world that keep ma­rine mam­mals solely for sci­ence have closed be­cause of fund­ing prob­lems, said Paul Nachti­gall, founder of the Univer­sity of Hawaii’s Ma­rine Mam­mal Re­search Pro­gram. His sea pens where Kina lived at the univer­sity were among them. It cost nearly $1 mil­lion a year to keep three an­i­mals at the lab. Sci­en­tists agree most cap­tive whales wouldn’t sur­vive if re­leased into the wild. Keiko, the orca that starred as Willy in the 1993 block­buster “Free Willy,” is an ex­am­ple of the dif­fi­culty in­volved in re­leas­ing cap­tive an­i­mals. In the film, a boy helps set the cap­tive whale free. But in real life, Keiko was res­cued af­ter the movie be­cause of an out­cry over his con­di­tions at a Mex­ico park. The whale even­tu­ally was re­leased into the wild but died a short time later.

What are ocean sanc­tu­ar­ies?

An­i­mal-rights ac­tivists are propos­ing es­tab­lish­ing refuges for re­tir­ing show an­i­mals by net­ting off large ar­eas of coastal ocean. The sanc­tu­ar­ies would be much larger and deeper than tanks and pools at fam­ily at­trac­tions, though the an­i­mals would still re­quire con­stant care. Ad­vo­cates say the refuges would em­ploy trained staff sim­i­lar to those at ma­rine parks.

Yes. A group called The Whale Sanc­tu­ary Project is rais­ing money and hopes to open a sea sanc­tu­ary in the com­ing years. Project or­ga­niz­ers started with about 100 pos­si­ble sanc­tu­ary sites and have nar­rowed that to 20 lo­ca­tions in Bri­tish Columbia, Nova Sco­tia and Wash­ing­ton state. They will be­gin pur­su­ing per­mits for two or three promis­ing lo­ca­tions next year, Pres­i­dent Lori Marino said. The refuge will pub­lish ob­ser­va­tional data on its whales and dol­phins but will not al­low in­depth, in­va­sive re­search on them, Marino said. Mean­while, the Na­tional Aquar­ium in Bal­ti­more last year an­nounced it will re­tire its dol­phins into a “pi­o­neer­ing” ocean pen by 2020.

Peo­ple for the Eth­i­cal Treat­ment of An­i­mals wel­comed the news, and the CEO of the Hu­mane So­ci­ety of the United States blogged that the head of the aquar­ium “has done some­thing ter­ri­bly im­por­tant.”“There’s no model any­where that we’re aware of for this,” aquar­ium CEO John Ra­canelli said in an in­ter­view ahead of the an­nounce­ment. “We’re pi­o­neer­ing here, and we know it’s nei­ther the eas­i­est nor the cheap­est op­tion.”

Would th­ese fa­cil­i­ties work?

Nachti­gall says sanc­tu­ar­ies are a great idea, but he wor­ries they’ll face the same money prob­lems his re­search pro­gram ex­pe­ri­enced. The an­i­mals need qual­ity food, vet­eri­nary care and stim­u­la­tion, which re­quires a large staff and ex­pen­sive in­fra­struc­ture. “If you’re go­ing to care for the an­i­mals the best way you can, you have to have the fund­ing to do it,” he said. “The best way to bring in fund­ing con­sis­tently is to have a pay­ing pub­lic.”

Marino be­lieves a shift in think­ing - and fund­ing could be the an­swer. She says her project, which was in­cor­po­rated last year, has raised about $1 mil­lion of the $20 mil­lion needed to get off the ground. Con­tin­ued fund­ing of about $2 mil­lion per year would come from donors and pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams. If ma­rine parks col­lab­o­rated with sanc­tu­ary cre­ators, she says, more dol­phins and whales could be swim­ming in the ocean. “I think there are peo­ple in the cap­tiv­ity com­mu­nity that want to see this hap­pen.” — AP

HAWAII: In this im­age made from video, Kina, a false killer whale, swims in a tank at Sea Life Park in Waimanalo, Hawaii. — AP

Are any in the works?

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