Week of April 14: Tables turn on captivity and whaling, new paper on humpback whale behavior and musician Pharrell launches recycled plastics clothing line

By Lauren Campbell, Conservation Manager

Since its premier in January 2013, the documentary Blackfish has sparked public outcry and even legislative measures against orcas (killer whales) in captivity.  Last Tuesday, April 8, the California Assembly was set to vote on the highly publicized AB2140: The Orca Welfare and Safety Act introduced by Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica.  In a somewhat surprising turn of events, the Assembly opted to hold off on voting on the bill pending an interim study.  The study could take up to 18 months to complete, but regardless, the actions of the Assembly make the AB2140 ineligible for a second vote until 2015. 

If passed, the bill would make it illegal in California to “hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performances or entertainment purposes”.  The bill would also ban artificial insemination and block the import and export of orcas or orca semen to/from other states.  With regards to the 10 orcas currently held at SeaWorld San Diego, the bill stipulates that these animals be rehabilitated and returned to the wild where possible.  If not possible, the orcas would be allowed to remain in existing enclosures until appropriate sea pens have been established, but would not be forced to perform. 

While orca activists might not have been fully satisfied with the California Assembly’s recent decision, the case against marine mammal captivity shows no signs of slowing and, if anything, is continuing to gain support.  In March, a bill banning orca captivity in New York passed the state’s Senate Standing Committee on Environmental Conservation.  Although more of a symbolic measure than California’s proposed orca bill, as New York does not have any orcas in captivity, the fate of SB6613 is nevertheless being closely monitored by animal welfare activists.  More than 2,100 dolphins are whales are currently held in captivity in 63 countries around the world.  Japan has the highest number of dolphinariums (57), followed by China (44) and the U.S. (34).  To date, South Carolina is the only state that has fully banned marine mammals in captivity.

Opposition to marine mammal captivity is also heating up in Vancouver, where two Vancouver City Park Board commissioners recently stated their support for the phasing out of all cetaceans (whales and dolphins) at the Vancouver Aquarium.  Although the Vancouver Aquarium phased out its orca shows, the park currently has two belugas on display, and plans on increasing the number of captive belugas once a larger tank is complete. 

SeaWorld did sustain a setback in its operations last week when the U.S. Court of Appeals denied the company’s appeal of citations originally issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 2010.  In the months following the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, OSHA cited SeaWorld for the endangerment of its killer whale trainers and recommended that SeaWorld trainers no longer be allowed to perform in the water with orcas.  SeaWorld has since suspended water work by its trainers, but was hoping to overturn OSHA’s citation and once again allow trainers in the water with orcas. The current ruling effectively continues the suspension on water work, however it is unknown if SeaWorld will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Want to know more about the “business” behind marine mammal captivity?  Check out the PBS documentary entitled: Frontline: A Whale of a Business.  Originally released in 1997, the film explores the story of Keiko (aka “Free Willy”), and delves deeper into the million dollar industry that is SeaWorld.

Remember how two weeks ago we were jumping for joy after the International Court of Justice ruled against Japan’s “scientific” whale hunt in the Antarctic?  Despite this (seemingly) victorious moment, Japan just recently announced that it does in fact intend to continue its Antarctic whale hunt with a new research program.  Apparently Japan has filed court briefs in the U.S. indicating that it intends to return to hunting whales in Antarctic waters during the 2015/2016 season.  It appears that Japan’s most recent actions are designed to target the Sea Shepherd organization and to maintain the temporary injunction on Sea Shepherd’s U.S. arm.  Updates will be made available as this story continues to develop.

As frustrating as the business of whaling may be, we should still revel in the fact that hundreds of researchers around the world are continuing to advance our knowledge about whales and dolphins. According to a new study, female humpback whales with calves utilize shallow waters as a means to avoid sexual harassment by males.  Published in the scientific journal Behavior, the study made four discoveries about male and female humpback whale behavior:

1. Female humpbacks with a calf were found in significantly shallower water than females without a calf;

2. Unescorted maternal females occurred in significantly shallower water than escorted maternal females;

3. The number of males escorting a female decreased significantly as water depth decreased; 

4. Escorted females travel significantly more rapidly than unescorted females and there is a significant positive correlation between swimming speed and number of escorts.

While previous research has demonstrated that groups with calves are more likely to be found in shallower waters, the study is the first to conclude that this behavior is caused by mothers avoiding males, rather than avoiding predators or seeking calmer waters.     

And in one more final new tidbit that should bring a smile to your face, Pharrell Williams and Adidas are partnering to design a clothing line, called “Originals”, that will use Bionic Yarn.  Created by Return Textiles LLC of New York, Bionic Yarn is comprised of 40% scrap plastic collected from the oceans.  For the Williams/Adidas line, the plastic to produce the clothing will be collected from the ocean by The Vortex Project.