Danielle Miller is an intern with the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute, and a student at the University of California at Berkeley.
Since the release of Blackfish, the 2013 documentary that sparked worldwide debate surrounding forced orca breeding and captivity, aquariums around the world have faced mounting pressure to exercise more humane and sustainable practices within their park walls. Just last year, Seaworld’s pledge to cease its captive orca breeding program was a significant step in the right direction.
SeaWorld adopted the breeding ban after the California Coastal Commission, with the support of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project, required a breeding ban as part of a permit SeaWorld San Diego requested for expansion of their orca tank. SeaWorld dropped the permit proposal and sued the Coastal Commission, but eventually gave in, avoiding IMMP’s intervention in the lawsuit, pledging to ban breeding in all of their parks nationwide.
Seaworld’s notable 2016 losses in both profit and attendance suggest a decline of public interest in captive wildlife-based entertainment, and a tremendous success for marine conservationists who have fought for decades on behalf of the anti-captivity movement.
However, as American aquariums have shifted away from questionable marine practices, programs, and public performances (and dozens of countries have banned orca captivity entirely), China seems to be committed to a very different narrative. Xinhua – the largest state media outlet in China – recently announced that 14 new marine amusement parks are either under construction or will be opening across the country in an effort to seize on the Chinese population’s interest in commercial tourism and entertainment.
Near Hong Kong, the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, one of the world’s largest aquariums, just opened China’s first orca breeding program. This particular park holds 9 orcas – five males and four females – all captured in Russian waters within the last three years. As the world’s 13th most visited theme park, the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom is a powerhouse driven by the promise of huge profits and a compelling message (Chimelong’s website boasts of the park’s ability to provide the public a peek at “adorable animals up close”) at the expense of orca safety and environmental activists’ efforts to slash worldwide captivity numbers in the first place.
Though Chinese media and press reports have not explained Chimelong’s breeding program in depth, nor have they fully expressed the extent to which future Chinese marine theme parks will integrate cetaceans in live shows, there is reason to be very concerned of potential health and behavioral violations for orcas under captive watch. When under the highly irregular and unnatural pressures of a forced breeding program, orcas can be inbred, bred before sexual maturity, prone to artificial insemination, exposed to heavy doses of antibiotics, and other harmful practices.
Generally, orcas do not do well in captivity, due to separation from their wild families, limitations in the size of tanks, and a lack of stimulation that leads to stress and boredom. Compared with their wild counterparts, the lifespans of captive orcas are severely limited.
It is becoming increasingly evident that, instead of joining nations around the world in the movement to promote cetacean health, China has opted to exploit orcas for commercial gain. Individuals who wish to push back on the Chimelong company and Chinese aquarium boom are urged to sign or create online petitions and spread awareness about China’s captive orca program, as many parks are still in their developing stages.
In the United States, voters should look for Congressman Adam Schiff’s (D-CA) ORCA Act – HR 1584, a bill that amends both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Animal Welfare Act, federally phasing out future orca captivity and preventing artificial insemination or breeding for exhibition purposes. The ORCA Act has just been reintroduced to the current session of Congress.