The inhumane treatment of marine life is under scrutiny right now. The documentaries The Cove and Blackfish have shone a very bright spotlight on dolphins and Orcas respectively, and have opened our eyes and pricked our consciences. Despite the counter-arguments of the human subjects of these controversial films people have been taking action; Seaworld’s shares have dropped, attendance has fallen and people are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of these creatures being kept in captivity. The Japanese government is being held accountable for their complicity in the trapping of dolphins to sell the females to aquariums and kill the rest for meat to be sold in supermarkets and served as school lunches (dolphin meat has since been removed from school menus due to dangerously high mercury levels).
In 2011 PETA filed a lawsuit claiming that Seaworld’s treatment of captive Orcas is tantamount to slavery and India created legislation naming marine mammals “non-human persons” because of their intelligence, granting them the same basic rights as human beings. In fact, with the advent of social media and Youtube, it’s not just professional filmmakers raising our awareness; recently a video was posted of a Beluga Whale interacting with some children on the other side of the walls of their tank. While the whale’s behaviour was initially interpreted as playful, behavioural psychologists specialising in whale mannerisms have revealed that the posturing and reactions were a display of aggression. There is some conjecture that this was due to the animal’s frustration at being confined as Beluga Whales do not attack humans, or anything human-sized, in the wild.
You only need to enter the word “Orca” into Google to find hundreds of videos documenting acts of aggression by captive marine animals against humans (and other animals), despite there being little to no evidence of them behaving this way towards humans in the open sea. There is one Orca who has been involved in the deaths of three humans and another who was involved in five attacks on humans and actually died attacking another whale. This is thought to be because the Orcas were a mixture of captured and captive-bred specimens; in the wild they travel in family groups called pods and would only attack other pods when their territory was threatened. It’s thought that, often, when forced to interact in tanks and live shows they don’t band together to form a new pod but instead treat each other as threats.
While there have been changes in the law there is still fervent debate over whether these animals should be kept captive at all. While Orcas cannot be caught off US coasts the captive breeding programme that has been touted as an alternative has led to many fatalities, both for calves and their mothers. It’s also been discussed whether the separation of surviving calves from their mothers is ethical as, in the wild, they would usually remain together for life. It’s also not uncommon for captive Orcas to be impregnated by their own fathers and children whereas, in the wild, they would interbreed with males from other pods.
It’s not just captive sea creatures that are under threat. All too often we see news stories about dolphins, whales and fish being found stranded on beaches where, more often than not, they meet an untimely demise. Frequently, when the bodies are examined, it is found that they have air bubbles in their blood stream. This usually happens when they swim from deep water to the surface too quickly, like when human divers get the bends. This causes trauma and disorientates the creatures, meaning that they may be driven to swim closer to shore where it’s easier to breathe. What’s strange about this phenomenon is the fact that these animals spend their whole lives swimming; for them to swim in a way that would be against their instincts there would have to be some sort of cause. It is generally accepted that the cause is some kind of sonic or seismic disturbance (a noise or tremor underwater). While this could be caused by underwater earthquakes it has also been known to be caused by Navy sonar, underwater drilling and the technology used to scan sea beds, often for offshore power farm planning.
Humans have been eating fish for millennia, but growing populations and increasingly effective fishing methods have had a huge impact on the numbers of fish in the water, particularly popular kinds like cod, salmon and tuna. In fact there are three different kind of tuna on the IUCN list of threatened, endangered and near-endangered species. Part of the issue is the non-discriminatory nature of fishing; while we can plot maps of where certain kinds of fish congregate we can’t target them effectively with nets and lures. Practices like gillnetting (where walls of net are used to trap fish by their gills) have led to the near-extinction of the Vaquita and other marine species. Rules and restrictions aren’t solving the problem, either being too lenient or poorly enforced. And it’s not just the nets being hauled in. Uncollected, discarded or broken nets are responsible for “ghost fishing”; where fish are just trapped and left to die, defenceless. The nets aren’t the beginning and end of the issue, either; the fishing boats themselves contribute to dumping and pollution.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Northeast Atlantic and European fish stocks are said to be recovering, if slower than initially hoped. Initiatives to help areas recover have led to sightings of new, previously undiscovered creatures. In attempting to find sustainable alternatives to sea fishing there have been huge developments in fish farming and “Aquaponics”: a sophisticated method where fish and plants are propagated in a harmonious symbiotic system, similar to an industrialised paddy farm.
So, what can we do to help? First of all we can reduce our demands on the ocean by diversifying our tastes in fish. While jellyfish is plentiful it’s not for everyone, but common fish such as Tilapia and Vietnamese River Cobbler are easily substituted into recipes that call for white fish like cod. There are plenty of documentaries you can watch to educate yourself further. My particular favourite was Mission Blue, about the incredible life of Dr Sylvia Earle and her work setting up Hope Spots around the globe. If you feel strongly about the treatment of captive sea mammals there are plenty of campaigns to get on board with. What do you think? Have you ever been to a marine mammal show? Do you agree with the changes in the law? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook! Have a look at our blog, article and guide pages for more about conservation, and visit our Pet Insurance page for information about dog, cat and horse insurance from Animal Friends.