Notorious marine park SeaWorld is asking the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) for a permit to import a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen from Canada’s Vancouver Aquarium. According to the permit application, Helen would be transferred to SeaWorld’s facility in San Antonio, Texas. The sad reality is that this appears to be the “least worst” option for Helen at this time.
SeaWorld has been embattled for years for keeping whales, dolphins, and other animals locked up in tiny tanks at its three locations in the United States. The 2013 documentary Blackfish raised awareness around the world about the plight of orca Tilikum and other whales and dolphins held at SeaWorld, causing companies to sever economic ties with the aquarium and stock prices to plummet. The “Blackfish effect” was part of the impetus for Canada’s recent move to ban the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity for human entertainment.
Helen needs companionship
Helen was taken into captivity in 1996 when she was found entangled in fishing nets in Japan, leading to the amputation of both of her forelimbs. Tragically, she cannot be released back into the wild as she would not survive, and there are currently no seaside sanctuaries that can provide a home.
Pacific white-sided dolphins are a highly social species. Sadly, Helen has been living in complete isolation since November 2017, when her tankmate, a false killer whale named Chester, died. The Vancouver Aquarium has acknowledged that she should now be moved elsewhere to be with other animals.
Dolphins can only be exported from Canada for scientific research, or if the export is in the best interests of the animal’s welfare. US law requires that social species of marine mammals be housed with at least one compatible tank-mate.
There are five Pacific white-sided dolphins already being held at SeaWorld in Texas. Given Helen’s solitary state, Animal Justice and our partners in animal protection groups in Canada and around the world believe that moving her from the Vancouver Aquarium to SeaWorld, where she can live with other dolphins, could improve her quality of life.
SeaWorld should comply with Canadian laws
But there’s a big “if” about this proposed transfer. Moving Helen to SeaWorld will only be in her best interests if SeaWorld meets Canadian legal standards. That means not breeding Helen, and not forcing her to perform demeaning tricks for human entertainment.
Because of the physical and psychological trauma caused by life in captivity and forced performances, Canada banned the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity in 2019, as well as captive breeding and performances for human entertainment.
Pacific white-sided dolphins have generally not been successfully bred in captivity. Still, it is important that the Canadian Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and US NOAA ensure SeaWorld abides by Canada’s ban on captive breeding of cetaceans. Because dolphins born in captivity cannot be released into the wild, allowing Helen to breed would doom a new generation of intelligent, highly social animals to life in captivity.
Concerns about captive breeding are a large part of the reason that Animal Justice is working to stop Ontario-based Marineland from exporting five beluga whales to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, where the facility intends to allow the belugas to breed.
We will be working hard to ensure that any permits granted to allow Helen’s transfer contain strong, enforceable conditions ensuring compliance with Canadian laws. When whales and dolphins are exported from Canada, it is imperative that the spirit and intent of Canada’s strong new laws be respected. Otherwise, we’ll be exporting the very cruelty and archaic practices that Canadians worked so hard to ban in our own country.
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Banner image from Kat2Kat2 on Flickr, with minor edits to colours.