By John Di Leonardo
Anyone who has picked up a newspaper lately knows that times are changing for captive marine mammals. The National Aquarium has decided to transfer all eight dolphins it once used in performances to coastal sanctuaries. The Georgia Aquarium has announced that it will no longer tear whales and dolphins away from the ocean. SeaWorld has stopped breeding orcas.
But even though the public's mindset is undeniably evolving ― and the captive industry is responding ― wild dolphins are still dying. They're being slaughtered and captured by the thousands to supply aquariums, theme parks and swim-with-dolphins programs. Every year between September and March in the small fishing village of Taiji, Japan, thousands of bottlenose dolphins and many other dolphin species are slaughtered. These "drive fisheries" were first exposed by the 2009 Academy Award –winning documentary "The Cove." Yet the massacre continues to this day.
While crew members clang metal poles and rocks together underwater to disorient the dolphins, boats chase them into shore. These dolphin killers have perfected their techniques. Most of the dolphins are butchered, slashed, bashed or crushed. Those left waiting scream and struggle to escape. The water literally runs red with blood.
According to author Susan Casey, who traveled to Japan to document the killings for her book "Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins," Taiji hunters recently introduced a new killing technique: They sever dolphins' spines while they're still alive by spiking metal rods into their blowholes, then they plug them with wooden dowels. The animals die slowly and in agony.
Most of the dead dolphins are sold for meat ― even though their flesh is heavily contaminated with mercury. A dead dolphin is worth about $500.
But some dolphins are instead sold to aquariums, performing-dolphin shows and swim-with-dolphins programs in China, Korea, Vietnam and other countries. It's these lucrative sales that keep the dolphin slaughter going. A young female dolphin can sell for $150,000. In 2012, marine parks bought 156 bottlenose dolphins, 49 spotted dolphins, two pilot whales, 14 Risso's dolphins, two striped dolphins and 24 white-sided dolphins from Taiji.
Closer to home, SeaWorld continues to force dolphins to perform tricks. In fact, earlier this year, SeaWorld San Antonio made the largest single capital investment in its 27-year history by doubling the size of its existing dolphin tank, adding more captive dolphins, and, for the first time ever at this facility, allowed paying customers to swim with the dolphins.
In the wild, dolphins swim together in family pods for miles every day. They navigate by bouncing sonar waves off objects to determine location and distance. For captive dolphins, even the largest tank is truly a hideous prison. Even sea pools limit these free-roaming animals to a tiny portion of their rightful ocean home.
Although captive dolphins in the United States are afforded minimal protections, programs outside the U.S. are often governed by even fewer, if any, laws. Throughout the world, dolphins are kept in small tanks or polluted sea pens. Driven by greed, many facilities operate almost continuously, giving the animals little respite from a constant stream of tourists.
It's time to stop exploiting dolphins for human entertainment. These intelligent, social animals should not lose their freedom just so that we can watch them perform silly tricks or go swimming with them. Families can help keep dolphins, whales and other aquatic animals in the oceans where they belong by refusing to patronize aquariums, swim-with-dolphins programs and marine theme parks.
John Di Leonardo, an anthrozoologist, is an Animals in Entertainment campaigner with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of Tribune or its editors.