Eight captive dolphins just earned an early retirement: the National Aquarium, in Baltimore, Maryland, announced Tuesday that it plans by 2020 to move the Atlantic bottlenose dolphins to an ocean refuge. The sanctuary would be the first of its kind in North America, according to the aquarium.
“We now know more about dolphins and their care, and we believe that the National Aquarium is uniquely positioned to use that knowledge to implement positive change,” said John Racanelli, chief executive officer of the National Aquarium, in a statement. “This is the right time to move forward with the dolphin sanctuary.”
Because the captive cetaceans would have trouble making it in the wild, they won’t be shipped out to the open seas and cut loose. (Six were born in the aquarium; one, named Jade, was transferred from SeaWorld Orlando; and only one had come from the wild.)
They’ll remain in human care in a to-be-determined spot in tropical waters with adequate space, barriers to prevent breeding among the dolphins and mingling with wild dolphins, and natural stimuli like fish and aquatic plants. Sites in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean have been explored, Racanelli said, according to the Associated Press.
The decision is a big deal for those eight dolphins, who haven’t performed in shows since 2012 but remain on display. And it’s potentially monumental for the hundreds of cetaceans—dolphins and orcas, the biggest of all the dolphins—still swimming in tanks and entertaining people. Nearly 556 cetaceans live in captivity in the United States, including nearly 400 bottlenose dolphins, according to The Humane Society.
Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, believes that other facilities will follow the National Aquarium’s lead. “It’s definitely moving the needle,” she says. “I do think it has serious implications for where the entire industry is going.”
Until now, institutions have resisted pleas from wildlife activists to remove captive dolphins to sea pens. Critics point to the death of Keiko, the orca who starred in the film Free Willy, to show that captive cetaceans can’t handle ocean life, with its exposure to pollutants, disease, and other hazards. Keiko had been rescued from a theme park in Mexico and released into a sea pen, only to later die from pneumonia.
“There are so many reasons why sea pens are not a panacea,” Kathleen Dezio, executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, an international accreditation group, told the Los Angeles Times in January.
SeaWorld keeps 160 captive cetaceans, according to wildlife organization Born Free Foundation, including 23 orcas. The company ended its orca breeding and shows earlier this year but said no to releasing them into sea sanctuaries. Tuesday’s announcement by the National Aquarium hasn’t changed SeaWorld’s position. Reacting to the news, spokeswoman Aimee Jeansonne Becka told the AP that SeaWorld’s orcas would be safer and receive better care in their current displays than in “sea cages” that are “high risk.”
Sea pen advocates dismiss the argument that ocean refuges will be bad for cetaceans as lacking a scientific basis—five theme park dolphins in South Korea made a successful transition to the wild after living in captivity (although they’d originally come from the wild). Advocates counter that the facilities don’t want to consider pricey alternatives when they can make money off captive dolphins and whales. “They’re very self-serving,” says Mark Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammals Project of Earth Island Institute.
Rose thinks that eventually aquariums will have to adjust to the shifting attitudes of their customers. Public scrutiny of using captive cetaceans for entertainment purposes has risen in recent years, as evidenced by a 2014 poll showing that half of the thousand people in the survey opposed keeping orcas in captivity, up 11 percentage points from two years earlier. SeaWorld’s decision to end its orca breeding followed years of declining attendance and decreased profits.
“I think smart facilities that want to stay in business or get out gracefully are going to pay attention to these societal trends,” Rose says.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the percentage of people opposed to keeping orcas in captivity went up by 11 percentage points from 2012, rather than up from 11 percent, and five theme park dolphins in South Korea, not two (Tom and Misha), successfully transitioned to the wild.
This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.