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SeaWorld evolving from circus-like marine shows, but what are Canada's aquariums doing?

[This screenshot is from a video posted by a former Marineland trainer of Zeus, a resident walrus, looking thin. (Yahoo News)]

Talk about a turn of the tide: across the U.S. aquariums are phasing out theatrical shows featuring killer whales and California has passed laws that ban their breeding completely. Baltimore’s National Aquarium announced it will move its dolphins from exhibits to a seaside sanctuary, to be built in either in Florida or the Caribbean in the future.

So what is happening in Canada? According to Conservative Senator Donald Plett Canada’s aquariums are “continuously evolving to meet the needs of marine mammals. We are seeing a greater focus on the rescue efforts of marine mammals that are ill, injured or stranded.”

A visit to Marineland Niagara’s site, however, shows that during the May to October operating season Marineland continues to runs shows featuring dolphins, beluga whales, sea lions and walruses. On Friday, Marineland was charged with five counts of animal cruelty by the Ontario SPCA. The charges were laid following complaints received earlier in November.

Repeated calls and emails that were made prior to the investigation to Marineland’s marketing department and Marineland owner John Holer were not returned. The private company does not release information about attendance or annual revenue figures.

For its part, the Vancouver Aquarium (VA) in Stanley Park hasn’t had killer whales in captivity since 2001; however, they have no intention of stopping the captive beluga whale-breeding program. The issue of beluga whales at VA was roused once again following the recent death of Qila, leaving her mother, Aurora, as the lone beluga in the aquarium.

“We expect to keep beluga for the next 50 years,” said John Nightingale, a biologist and the aquarium’s President and CEO, in an interview prior to Qila’s death. Earlier this year a documentary titled Vancouver Aquarium Uncovered heavily criticized the VA for its breeding program. The aquarium won an injunction that required the filmmaker to remove five minutes of allegedly copyrighted material from the 60-minute film.

The sea change in the U.S. industry began after the release of the 2013 film Blackfish and the intense public scrutiny the entire industry faced as a result: Blackfish focused on trainer Dawn Brancheau who was killed in 2010 by Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando. After the film’s release, company profits dropped 84 per cent in 2015, attendance was in freefall and shares plunged. This year, second quarter results were weak; attendance at the start of summer fell 7.6 per cent to less than six million. SeaWorld is working to rebrand its image; it announced it is ending its orca-breeding program and phasing out Shamu theatrical shows at its three U.S. locations. In addition, there are focusing on educating visitors; they are highlighting their rescue and rehabilitation efforts; they are going to modify the killer whale habitat to look more natural; and they are adding theme-park-like attractions.

Canada’s aquariums are evolving, but in a different manner.

Casting a fine net

In May 2015, Ontario passed Bill 80, marine mammal legislation that bans the buying, selling or breeding of orcas. Last year, Liberal Senator Wilfred Moore introduced S-203, a federal bill to phase out whales and dolphins in captivity. The bill, called Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act, would prohibit breeding, imports, exports and live captures of whales, dolphins and porpoises across Canada. The bill has provisions for the rescue and rehabilitation of injured individuals, which can be used in research if they cannot be returned to the wild. It has had second reading.

Moore told the Senate at the time: “The evidence shows that keeping these incredible creatures confined in swimming pools is unjustifiably cruel. Orcas experience dorsal fin collapse, broken teeth, damaged skin, significantly reduced life spans and stress-induced aggression.”

He faces opposition from Manitoba Conservative Senator Donald Plett.

In an email Plett said he’s concerned the bill criminalizes work occurring at Canadian aquariums. “The language is overly broad and casts a fine net that would capture everyone, from volunteers to veterinarians to researchers to educators in its mesh.

“By criminalizing research, education and conservation activities involving cetaceans, this bill would not only end important scientific research, but it would end the personal connections and journeys that could one day help to preserve the Beluga or the Right Whale.”

He believes aquariums are important because people feel connected to nature when they see animals and, subsequently want to battle ocean pollution. In his estimation, it is would be impossible to amend bill S-203 without gutting it entirely.

“We need more Canadians aware, engaged and willing to help slow down that degradation and the connection that comes from an aquarium visit and seeing the living animals is key to starting the process of caring about nature,” he wrote.

Beyond the Sea

Vancouver Aquarium is a very successful non-profit and a very successful business – it is backed by both sponsors and corporate donors that include Air Canada, BMO Financial, Ford Motors, and Imperial Oil, to name a few. It has had record attendance for the last three years – 1.1 million in 2015 and record revenues, approximately $37.4-million in 2015 and $33.4-million in 2014. It’s no surprise CEO Nightingale would like to see that upward trend continue.

One of the ways they intend to achieve it is by increasing the aquarium’s digital presence and hitting targets of 100 million unique visitors by 2020 and one billion by 2025, he says. The aquarium might partner with other institutions around the world or corporations to develop engaging content, he says, and tell stories about marine mammals and ocean health issues. There are no theatrical shows at VA; instead there’s an educational walking tour where marine mammals are housed in as natural-looking habitats as possible. They also offer opportunities for people to get super-close to dolphins, sea lions, sea otters, and penguins. In the ‘Dolphin Encounter’, for instance, $240 buys one adult and one child 90 minutes with a dolphin to ‘feed and interact’ with it. (SeaWorld sells similar encounters starting at US$15 but it’s more of a behind-the-scenes tour.)

And because visitors love beluga whale, the the breeding program will continue with the aquarium’s captive animals. (They don’t capture from the wild.)

“They are much better suited to live in an aquarium than killer whales,” Nightingale says. “The killer whale is athletic. If it were a car it would be a Ferrari. Belugas aren’t athletic, they are the VW bus of the whale world. Metaphorically.”

Their natural habitat is the Arctic and subarctic regions of Russia, Greenland, and North America. There are pods in Churchill, Manitoba.

Nightingale is unhappy with Senator Moore’s legislation. While Bill S-203 would not interfere with their research or rescue and rehabilitation efforts, it would require the aquarium to eventually end its captive breeding program. Nightingale says veterinarians have gained skills from working daily with captive animals and used that knowledge during rescue missions. He agrees with Senator Plett’s assessment that people won’t advocate for the ocean and its inhabitants if they don’t connect with marine mammals.

New partnerships

SeaWorld’s rebranding efforts are designed to get visitors up close and personal with nature and its creatures. It’s evident from the SeaWorld Orlando banners hanging amidst heavy foliage that describe the rescue and rehabilitation program, and from SeaWorld’s new partnership with the U.S. Humane Society.

And it’s evident from the SeaWorld Orlando guide who enthusiastically describes manatee rescue and how the rehab pool is open for all visitors. Children scurry up and are awed by the blobby herbivores hoovering up lettuce, then shocked by the scars where the animals were hit by speedboats. It’s unsettling that the Shamu show is still operating, — albeit a watered down version — where the killer whales leap into the air and splash the audience on command. SeaWorld is phasing out these theatrical performances and this is the last generation of orcas that do this. SeaWorld is also banking on its new attractions, Mako, a shark-themed rollercoaster; Kraken, a floorless coaster; and the ride Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, to win over visitors.

As research analyst Michael Erstad told the San Diego Tribune earlier this year, it could be some time before SeaWorld returns to its former glory. “While we applaud management’s efforts to position the company in the right direction and place the company on the right side of the discussion with regards to animal activists,” he said, “weakness in core fundamentals is hard to ignore.” SeaWorld’s third-quarter results will be announced November 8.

Marineland

If you applaud U.S. institutions such as SeaWorld for moving forward, then Marineland Niagara might leave you confused and disappointed.

Disappointed is how Phil Demers feels; he says the park is unlikely to evolve. “You set foot in Marineland and you are set back 40 years in time,” he says. Demers worked at Marineland from 2000 to 2012 and, in 2004 became chief caretaker of a walrus named Smooshie; the animal was so close to Demers that Demers acquired the nickname “Walrus Whisperer”. Demers left his job in 2012 because he could no longer bear to see what he described as negligent conditions and treatment of animals.

“We justify and say that they [animals] get medical attention and six square meals a day but there’s not justification for it. Taking everything that is biological and natural to them, to swim hundreds of miles, to hunt, whatever, and to mute it all and to suppress their reasons for being alive and to put them in a cage, it’s just wrong,” Demers said. “It ruins that animal and the experience of seeing that animal. I know people understand that.”

Other staffers left and The Toronto Star wrote a slew of stories about how the animals were suffering. Demers was banned from Marineland and Holer, the owner, filed a lawsuit against him. Demers filed a counterclaim. The case is ongoing. The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) conducted an investigation into the reports of animal abuse but didn’t lay any charges.

In October, two non-profit organizations, ZooCheck and Animal Alliance Canada announced they hired Mike Zimmerman, formerly with Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, to review how the OSPCA enforces animal welfare laws in Ontario. Zimmerman, a member of the team that revised the OSPCA Act seven years ago, is expected to release a report, in March 2017, with recommendations related to accountability, effectiveness, and transparency.

Ultimately, Demers wants to see an end to landlocked marine mammals. Technology has advanced to the point people can virtually connect with marine mammals without having to capture them and remove them from their natural habitat, he said.

“A concrete pool is no replica and you will never replicate nature,” he said. “You’ve taken the animal out of its natural environment and you watch the will to live go away.”

Into the wild

Senator Moore believes the time has come for Canada’s aquariums to evolve. Adopting S-203 is, he says, a moral issue:

“It’s also an issue where our moral intuition agrees with science: these incredible creatures truly suffer in captivity. At its heart, this bill is about preventing cruelty to sensitive beings that share our planet,” he says. “Canada’s federal laws should recognize that whales and dolphins don’t belong in swimming pools. They belong in the sea.”