Killer whales in captivity: An idea whose time has passed?

As attitudes change, it may be time for public pressure to change its focus from captive killer whales to wild ones

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

The ripples of the Blackfish effect have continued for so long and reached so far that it’s hard to tell if the 2013 CNN documentary is still what’s behind the push to change conditions for captive whales in North America.

Ontario moved this week to introduce strict new standards for marine mammals in captivity, including making it illegal to breed, buy or import killer whales. The province is home to the Canada’s only captive killer whale, the elderly Kiska, who lives alone at the Marineland theme park in Niagara Falls, Ont., and has been retired from performing. Since she’s already here, she would not be affected by the changes.

As Kiska’s state of solitude shows, Ontario’s new rules are in line with changing public attitudes about using killer whales and other marine mammals for entertainment and display. The theme-park chain SeaWorld, which was pilloried in Blackfish, has been floundering financially; its #AskSeaWorld Twitter campaign backfired; the video series defending its practices has failed to gain much of an audience online. Marineland has been the site of regular protests in recent years (more than 300 people have already signed up to march on the park on opening day, May 16), but insists all its practices are up to industry standards.

The Canadian Council for Animal Care published guidelines for the care and use of marine mammals in December after a 15-year process of meetings, debates, and drafts, says Gilly Griffin, the organization’s director of standards. Although eight provinces require adherence to CCAC guidelines in their animal-use laws, there is no formal system of oversight of non-scientific animals at the federal level. Parks like Marineland are inspected by SPCAs and the industry association Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums. The CCAC’s recommendations document is “there so that anyone can pick it up and use it,” Griffin says, but it doesn’t have the force of law.

The CCAC doesn’t take a position about keeping any particular species in captivity. It focuses on quality of life. But what is a quality life for a killer whale? Cetacean specialist Dr. Robin Baird has been studying the animals, also called orcas, since 1986. He explains what they need to thrive in their environment, and what people concerned about their welfare should really be worried about.

Q: Totally putting aside whether it’s right or wrong, is it at all possible to approximate killer whales’ natural habitat in captivity?

A: Depending on whether they’ve found a good patch of prey, killer whales may cover 50, 75, or 100 miles in a day. Their overall range in a week might cover a 500-mile stretch. The other thing that’s quite different in the wild is their social groups. Killer whales have these long-term bonds. Offspring stay with the mother for life. They may separate by miles while they’re hunting, but they’re coming back together multiple times a day. Recreating that type of physical or social environment is pretty much impossible.

Q: They’re also super-smart, right? As smart as chimps, as Marineland claims? 

Relating them to chimpanzees is reasonable. Years ago, I was studying a group of killer whales that was eating a porpoise. Part of the porpoise floated to the surface near our boat, and we went over with a net to try to collect a little skin sample. While we were getting the knife out, one of the whales, an adult male, swam under our boat very slowly, then came up at us, then swam back under again and looked at us. The third time it came up, it grabbed the net and the porpoise and pulled it right out of my hand. They have problem-solving abilities.

Q: There’s increasing recognition of how challenging it is to make a killer whale feel “at home” in captivity. But that’s falling out of favour. There’s exactly one captive killer whale in this country. Are there issues we may be overlooking as social media has been dominated by concerns about captivity?

A: I work with southern resident killer whales, which are the trans-boundary population in British Columbia and Washington state. I’m looking at some of the risk factors they’re facing. The most important [risk] is the reduction of their prey base of Chinook salmon, which are affected both in the U.S. and in Canada by a variety of human factors. What’s complicated is that it’s not the super-abundant salmon runs that are important to the whales, but the hundreds of smaller populations that move in and out of different waters at different times of the year. Killer whales, of course, have to eat all year round. I think the U.S. does a better job at managing small populations of salmon. Fisheries management in Canada tends to be, “Okay, we want there to be tons of fish, and the Fraser-Thompson River has this many million fish, and that’s what we need to manage.” But from the whale’s perspective, we’re not ensuring that all those small salmon runs are protected.

Q: Where should people direct their energy if they want to help killer whales?

A: There are some tangible things you can do. One thing even people in Ontario can do is not eat farmed salmon. When you keep tens of thousands of animals in a very small space, diseases proliferate and they can transfer to wild populations. I only buy Chinook salmon from Alaska, where the population is doing quite well. Also, as time goes on, it becomes clear that many of the things humans like to dump into the ocean have long-term implications. In this case, individual choices are important, but so is pressure on governments to more strictly regulate these things. Peter Ross, a toxicologist at the Vancouver Aquarium, has been looking at the levels of flame-retardants in killer whales. They’re exorbitantly high, and increasing.  Not all chemical impacts are obvious; some are a lot more subtle and do require a lot more testing. For example, the chemical makeup of flame-retardants is such that it’s easy to see how they could cause problems with the immune system. Sometimes those costs aren’t apparent until many years down the road. My wife and I bought a couch without flame-retardants in it.

Q: Any future environmental problem could be a huge risk to the population, because it’s so small—around 80 whales. Are the southern residents, or killer whales in general, under existential threat? Are they going to make it? 

A: Back 200 years ago, we think the population of southern resident killer whales was only in the 150-200 range. They’re top predators. They’re naturally rare. I’ll put it this way: I like to make bets, usually only for five dollars. Usually only if I know I’m going to win. And I wouldn’t bet any money on the long-term survival of southern resident killer whales.


Killer whales in captivity: An idea whose time has passed?

  1. Thank you for this article, as it reminds us not to forget the problems some wild orca populations have. Ironically, the southern residents’ endangerment is connected to captivity. While it is certainly the case, as Dr. Baird points out, that there are food availability and toxin issues, this population is down so low because it was almost entirely decimated by SeaWorld in the 1970’s when they captured (and in the process killed) many of the residents for their displays. This left the population weakened in numbers and in demographic characteristics and it has yet to recover. So, yes, there are problems in the wild but they are not unrelated to how we tend to mistreat these beings in a more general sense.

    • What a bizarre and random attempt to throw salmon farming under the bus in the Q&A with Robin Baird. His comment makes no sense. How does not eating farmed salmon help killer whales? How does encouraging people to eat more Chinook salmon — the primary food source of killer whales — help save killer whales? It doesn’t.

      By the way, a recent population survey in BC suggests that the southern resident killer whale population numbers are actually improving, too bad Robin Baird didn’t mention that.

      • The endangered population of Southern Resident killer whales has had four calves since the end of December 2014 – (and that count will depend on if the newest baby in L-Pod is present when they return to the Salish Sea). With a 50% mortality rate – or a 50% survival rate depending on how you look at it – absolutely is an improvement, but hardly a recovery to write home about.

        This population needs help, and what they need is food – that food source is salmon. (Specifically, Chinook salmon). We need to get them fed and fat, so that we can ultimately work on all the other issues facing this population.

        In my opinion, getting rid of farmed salmon will absolutely help the wild populations recover – we know this because it is farmed salmon that is spreading unnecessary disease that is harming the wild populations.

        • We don’t know that farmed salmon are harming wild populations in BC. There is no evidence of harm. The massive Cohen Commission found no evidence that salmon farms in BC do any measurable harm to wild salmon runs.

          That said, Baird’s comment still makes no sense. How will opposing salmon farms, and eating wild Chinook salmon — the prime food source of killer whales — help save killer whales? Perhaps instead of worrying about salmon farms, we should turn our attention to habitat restoration and more selective fisheries that allow more Chinook to escape.

          • Did he not say he only eats chinook from Alaska where it is abundant? He doesn’t eat chinook from BC waters. I think banning farmed salmon and commercial fishing would be a step in the right direction!

          • Lori, it’s not accurate to say that Chinook salmon is abundant in Alaska. Most of the Chinook caught by SE Alaskan fisheries – the most productive Alaskan Chinook fisheries – are actually not Alaskan in origin. This is because of the Alaskan Panhandle, which gives American fishermen access through their “Exclusive Economic Zone” access to a massive amount of Canadian-origin Chinook as well as Washington and Oregon origin salmon passing through.

            See this map: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/files/2011/03/USA-exclusive-economic-zone-map-590×440.jpg

            And this study: http://www.arlis.org/docs/vol1/47066458.pdf

        • Can you find this “spreading unnecessary disease that is harming the wild populations” in the Cohen Final Report – specifically here in BC please?

    • Lori Marino, I thought you were going to say ‘ironically, the southern residents’ endangerment is connected to captivity’ of salmon! I know you acknowledge that Dr Baird does point out the disease proliferation and transference ‘to wild populations’ from salmon feedlots–which is what these overcrowded ‘farms’ are in reality–and the toxin issues as you say, but that their population was ‘almost entirely decimated by SeaWorld in the 1970s. But I would go further and say that the ‘problems in the wild…are not unrelated to how we tend to mistreat’ the farmed Salmon too. ‘Over the years, fish farmers in Norway..have experienced severe and unacceptable side-effects in vaccinated fish…severe lesions not restricted to the abdominal cavity and internal organs..we sentence some to life-long suffering due to severe pathological lesions in internal organs..anorexia and retarded growth’. From the Norwegian School of Veterinarian Science. http://oslovet.norecopa.no/gardermoen/2405poppe.pdf

    • By avoiding farmed salmon, we as consumers can not only reduce our exposure to dioxin-like PCBs, but help wild salmon habitat and therefore help the whales who depend on them (along with a multitude of other flora and fauna). There are absolutely no data that supports the claim that farmed salmon ‘protect wild salmon’. The results are in, over the last 30 years we have seen conventional salmon farming destroy wild fish and crustaceans and their habitat wherever salmon open-net pen (feedlots) are placed-from Norway, UK, Chile, and on both coasts of Canada.

      Today, the sea lice that plague farmed salmon because they are crammed un-naturally into pens have become drug resistant. They are now even resistant to direct bleach treatments. In response, salmon farmers use ever more toxic drugs and these, along with the now resistant sea lice, are dumped to the environment. Salmon farms, which are often placed on sensitive salmon migration routes, produce sea lice that at alarming levels that directly impact wild salmon.

      We need to act and make data driven decisions regarding conservation, not buy empty and harmful rhetoric from salmon farmer PR/marketing attempts.

      Trends Parasitol. 2015 Feb;31(2):72-81. doi: 10.1016/j.pt.2014.12.006. Epub 2015 Jan 29.
      Drug resistance in sea lice: a threat to salmonid aquaculture.
      Aaen SM, Helgesen KO, Bakke MJ, Kaur K, Horsberg TE.

      Author information
      Norwegian University of Life Sciences, School of Veterinary Science, Sea Lice Research Centre, Oslo, Norway. Electronic address: stian.morch.aaen@nmbu.no.

      “Sea lice are copepod ectoparasites with vast reproductive potential and affect a wide variety of fish species. The number of parasites causing morbidity is proportional to fish size. Natural low host density restricts massive parasite dispersal. However, expanded salmon farming has shifted the conditions in favor of the parasite. Salmon farms are often situated near wild salmonid migrating routes, with smolts being particularly vulnerable to sea lice infestation. In order to protect both farmed and wild salmonids passing or residing in the proximity of the farms, several measures are taken. Medicinal treatment of farmed fish has been the most predictable and efficacious, leading to extensive use of the available compounds. This has resulted in drug-resistant parasites occurring on farmed and possibly wild salmonids.”

      • 1) Please provide evidence that salmon farms in BC have destroyed wild fish and crustaceans.

        2) Sea lice in BC are not drug-resistant.

        • 1) As a paid salmon farmer PR rep, the onus to provide data is on you. Please provided a list of chemicals and treatments used, as well as the diseases present on farms in BC.

          2) Please provide your data that demonstrate that sea lice in BC, unlike everywhere else salmon farms are infested with sea lice have demonstrated, are not drug-resistant. Its only a mater of time, no other factors in BC preclude the same biological fate that has occurred everywhere else in the world. The trouble with science is that is it true, whether you like it or not.

          • For the public, the state of sea lice infestation on BC salmon farms can be reviewed here: http://www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/aquaculture/reporting-rapports/lice-pou-eng.html

            Sea lice are vectors for viral diseases such as the lethal infectious salmon anemia (ISA), which researchers have known since 1994 (Nylund et al. 1994, Mechanisms for transmission of infectious salmon anemia (ISA), Diseases of Aquatic Organisms, Volume 19, pages 95-100)

            Many farms in BC exceed the tolerable number of sea lice per farmed salmon, and even Cermaq, where Grant works, has been cited last year for:

            “Failed to report reaching threshold as required by licence. Follow up actions taken to enforce adherence to licence conditions. Management action underway.”

          • No, you made the claims, you are beholden to provide evidence to support them. Schoolchildren know this. As Hitchens said, that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.

            However, since I am interested in constructive dialogue, I will answer your questions in the hopes that you will answer mine, instead of deflecting.

            1) Here you go: http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/vet/legislation/pol/aquaculture_anim-eng.php

            2) The evidence that sea lice are not resistant to SLICE in BC is that SLICE still works effectively.

            Now please answer my questions; otherwise you are wasting everyone’s time here.

          • I’m more than happy to provide information to the public from peer-reviewed and validated scientific information, not from industry sponsored and spun results. When will you send me the check to fulfill your request? The information you present, unlike what I have referenced, is obsolete: ” * The list and information is accurate as of June 4, 2010.” Sea lice mutate quickly, and we only need to look to Norway and the failure of salmon farming there to see how (see reference provided that was published Feb 2015).

            Salmon farming is what is wasting everyone’s time, forage fish resources, antibiotics, environment, and health. The evidence is clear for those willing to look at the actual independent and peer-reviewed results.

          • If the evidence is clear, as you keep saying, then please share it with us here.

            You wrote, and I quote, ” The results are in, over the last 30 years we have seen conventional salmon farming destroy wild fish and crustaceans and their habitat wherever salmon open-net pen (feedlots) are placed-from Norway, UK, Chile, and on both coasts of Canada.”

            Please share some of these “results” and evidence from peer-reviewed, scientific sources to show that salmon farms in BC have destroyed wild fish and crustaceans and their habitat.

            You owe it to the integrity of this discussion to back up what you are saying, rather than glibly replying “When will you send me the check to fulfill your request?”

            In response to your suggestion that the Health Canada list is out of date, you are incorrect. It is not out of date. It has not been updated because nothing has changed since 2010.

            Finally, your reference to sea lice in Norway does not follow. Environmental conditions in BC are very different from Norway. Here in BC, we have only one treatment, SLICE (Hydrogen peroxide is only being used experimentally by one company in very limited amounts and is not approved for general use yet). Our veterinarians and managers use it sparingly, and follow good management practices and treatment timings to ensure sea lice do not have a chance to develop resistance.

            If you have any actual evidence that sea lice in BC are developing resistance to SLICE, please share it with us here, our farm managers would need to know right away.

          • The author is completely right, stop eating farmed salmon and save Orcas. Their conclusion is supported by the actual independent and peer-reviewed scientific literature, regardless of the salmon farmer/rancher paid trolls that are doing their best to deny any opposition with personal attacks and to distract consumers from protecting wild salmon, the whales, and consumer health.

            Consumers, you can protect whale and wild salmon habitat as well as your health by following consumer seafood advisories such as the Seafood Watch that recommend people AVOID farmed salmon:

            Farmed salmon accumulate toxins from feeds at up to 10-times that of farmed land animals: “National monitoring data on commercial fish feed and farmed Atlantic salmon on the Norwegian market were used to provide commercially relevant feed-to-fillet transfer factors (calculated as fillet POP level divided by feed POP level), which ranged from 0.4 to 0.5, which is a factor 5-10 times higher than reported for terrestrial meat products” Reference: “Carry-over of dietary organochlorine pesticides, PCDD/Fs, PCBs, and brominated flame retardants to Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.) fillets.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?

            Migrating and resident larger whales also directly die in salmon farm open feedlots:

            “Dead Humpback Whale Found in B.C. Salmon Farm – Another Reason Not to Consume These Farm Raised Fish”


            “Three great reasons to avoid farm raised Atlantic salmon; it is an unhealthy food choice, the farming practices trash the environment, and the nets kill marine mammals and birds.

            According to The Globe and Mail, a humpback whale was found dead inside a British Columbia, Canada fish farm…”

            We are loosing endangered whales and birds along with coastal habitat for a luxury item that will in no way ‘protect wild salmon’ or ‘feed the world’. We all can do our part by eating lower down on the food chain, instead of wasting forage fish on fish feeds for salmonids.

    • Hi Lori, you’re absolutely right about the southern resident population being decimated by capture in the 70s — Dr. Baird mentioned this to me, but it was eventually cut for length. Because so many healthy young females were taken, the population is still feeling the effects of those captures today. Also, killer whales were routinely shot at between the 1940s-60s because they were thought of as dangerous to humans and to the fishing industry.

  2. Research has shown that wild salmon go into exceptional decline wherever there are salmon farms (Ford and Myers 2008). The trouble is that salmon farms are feedlots and as such amplify pathogens to levels wild salmon are not built to survive. We learned to close chicken farms from wild birds to stop spread of avian flu, we don’t let wild game wander through cow feedlots for fear of Chronic Wasting Disease. But some how these lessons are lost on salmon where these feedlots use nets and allow all their waste to pour into wild fish habitat. One of the most effective ways to restore wild salmon, may be to remove the pathogen loads caused by salmon farms. It is a dirty industry that needs to mature and contain its waste. Norway is the mother-country of this industry and Norwegians are very concerned. https://www.change.org/p/to-the-citizens-of-norway-divest-from-dirty-salmon

    • Alex, your statement that “We learned to close chicken farms from wild birds to stop spread of avian flu, we don’t let wild game wander through cow feedlots for fear of Chronic Wasting Disease” is not accurate.

      Chicken barns are not closed systems, there was another outbreak of avian flu in the Fraser Valley just a few months ago. Chicken farmers do their best to prevent this, but there is no way to completely eliminate the risk.

      And range cattle wander hundreds of miles through the wilderness foraging, exposed to the viruses and diseases naturally in the environment, before they are rounded up and put in feedlots for a few months prior to slaughter. They do not spend their entire lives in feedlots.

      Closed-containment systems for salmon are not a solution to disease problems in salmon farming. The higher densities required to make these systems profitable make disease outbreaks even riskier.

      Besides, as Dr. Gary Marty told the Senate last week, as long as fish in ocean farms are kept healthy, the risk of disease transfer between farmed and wild fish is very low.

      • Grant, you have proved Alex’s point entirely! Just think of the devastation Avian flu would cause if the millions of birds in each of these barns were living in an open air situation and not just exposed to viruses through the ventilation system. That’s not to mention the fact that health officials are extremely concerned with the possible spread of more lethal strains, and human-to-human transmission. As to your analogy about cattle, Alex was specifically talking about wild game wandering through the feedlot situation, not the other way around–the problem would be the feedlot with close proximity of too many animals that can spread and mutate disease like wildfire. Fishfarm feedlots are a joke with their ‘biosecurity’ signage limiting personnel, etc; meanwhile, the proliferation of viruses, bacteria and lice bred in these open-net pens flush back and forth with the tides dispersing through the natural environment. If even ‘higher densities (are) required to make these (closed-containment) systems profitable’, it is only because the present system of open-net pen farming doesn’t account for the dumping of tons of excrement and food wastes beneath pens, and other costs to the environment–including endangering wild salmon and everything that depends on wild salmon.

        • So, Alex is factually incorrect about chickens barns being closed systems, but Grant apparently proved her point? You are forgetting that chicken farmers are quite vigilant about Avian flu and that infected birds are destroyed according to legislation. They don’t let it get to the point where there is all this “devastation”.

          When have you actually read the Cohen Report Final Report findings about aquaculture? Have you taken an interest at all in the recent productivity of Fraser Sockeye since 2009 while at the same time salmon farms have continued to operate? Have you heard about the abnormal warm water conditions in the NE Pacific or recent studies regarding the potential impact of the high abundance of hatchery Pink Salmon on Sockeye in the NE Pacific? But also, how does killing wild Chinook Salmon benefit Killer Whales?

    • Alex, while you are more concerned about what is going on in Norway there are other more pressing issues here such as the abnormal warm water conditions in the NE Pacific as well as the over abundance of hatchery pink salmon in the same area and their impacts on Sockeye. You are too focused on salmon farming, but missing the larger picture. Why are quoting a 2008 report, but not the findings from the Cohen Final Report which was released in 2012? Do you know what those findings stated about the evidence to date? It certainly didn’t recommend that the most effective way to restore wild salmon was “to remove the pathogen loads caused by salmon farms.” It certainly didn’t state that diseases were out of control on BC salmon farms.

      You don’t save Killer Whales by killing more wild Chinook Salmon – their primary food source. You should know better considering the Killer Whales are supposedly your area expertise, Alex.

  3. Dr. Robin Baird earned a doctorate in whale behavioural ecology in 1994. Apparently a doctorate doesn’t imply that one says smart things.

    To save a killer whale, Dr. Baird recommends we should eat its primary food source – a Chinook salmon. Brilliant advice…and from an ecologist. Crikey!

    Dr. Baird also suggests that Alaska Chinook (King) salmon is “doing quite well”.

    Interesting claim, given the fact that the U.S. government just announced a payout of over $20 million to help sport and commercial fishers in Alaska get through a “disastrous” King salmon fishery season.

    Remember the day when “experts” actually gave advice on the topics they knew something about?

    Neither do we.


  4. Salmonconfidential is the fish farm critic’s twisted version of the Cohen findings because they were not happy with the final report. It’s a highly edited film where only selective quotes are taken from the key individuals providing testimony during the Cohen Inquiry. Kristi Miller says much more than what is said in this film. The reasons are pretty clear: her testimony (as well as Dr. Nylund’s) doesn’t support farm critic theories. For instance, where in the film is Dr. Miller’s retrospective work on preserved samples where she suggests that and ISAv-like virus has likely been around our coast before salmon farming started here. Where is Dr. Miller’s testimony about her findings about Creative Chinook Salmon in the film?


    Lori, try finding what I asked in the actual Cohen Final Report please. Meanwhile, will farm critics please explain how killing wild Chinook Salmon (the primary food source for Killer Whales) benefits Killer Whales.

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