what should we know before we free willy

Public and media interest in releasing captive cetaceans (i.e, orca whales and dolphins) to the wild has increased notably over the past two years as seen in recent fund-raising campaigns for "Keiko," Lolita, "the Sugarloaf Dolphin Sanctuary (SDS), and the "Welcome Home 'Bogie' and 'Bacall' Project." However, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), NMFS is entrusted by Congress to protect marine mammals in the wild. As such, the reintroduction of captive marine mammals into the wild must be done in a manner that protects wild stocks and populations as well as ensuring the survivability of an individaul to be released (i.e. preventing the "take" of marine mammals). Presently, no scientific protocols exist for reintroducing captive marine mammals back into the wild. Therefore, NMFS has consistently stated in both press releases and responses to letters of inquiry, that scientific protocols must be developed through issuance of scientific research permits for bona fide scientific reintroduction projects which provide for public and scientific peer review.

The lack of documentation and scientifically established protocols and their critical importance for responsible reintroduction of any captive animal into the wild was ackowledged by the U.S. Congress in 1994 regarding dolphins held by the U.S. Navy. Although great media pressure was placed on Congressional members to make these dolphins available for release into the wild rather than placement in public display facilities, Congress did so by acknowledging that any release of these captive dolphins be done through scientifically accepted protocols....

Issues of concern surrounding the reintroduction of captive animals include disease transmission between released and wild individuals and stocks, unwanted genetic exchanges between introduced and endemic stocks/populations; the ability of the released animals to adequately forage and defend themselves from predators; and any behavioral patterns developed in captivity which could prove detrimental to the social structure of local populations as well as the social assimilation of the released animal.

The importance of these concerns as they apply to marine mammals has been underscored in recent years with a number of mass mortalities involving marine mammals along the coastlines of the U.S. and other areas around the world. Most of the mass mortalities involving cetaceans and pinnipeds (seals) have been the result of disease, including diseases not previously seen in the affected populations. With the limited knowledge currently available about marine mammal diseases, the need to prevent the introduction of disease into the wild is a very real and serious consideration. In addition, human-caused introductions of non-indigenous species to local habitats has had serious ecological impacts throughout the world. Because the captive cetaceans publicized for reintroduction are not endangered or threatened species (for which re-introduction to areas beyond their original genetic range is sometimes a consideration), there is concern over the long-term ecological impact of genetic mixing that would not have otherwise occurred without human interference.

The sparse history of rehabilitated and released captive cetaceans has provided limited documentation with questionable results. NMFS has acted on only two applications for permits to release dolphins. One project (1989) involved the initial capture of dolphins for a period of two years, followed by release to their original waters with on-going monitoring of their success. However, the other project (1987) was less quantifiable in its methodologies and resulted in only 8 sightings two months after the dolphins' release. No further sightings of the dolphins from this release have been made. In addition, this release project raised environmental awareness over potential impacts to local dolphin populations (as the female dolphin was pregnant) and other potential impacts on the ecology in the area. Internationally, a well known release project, "Into the Blue" (1992) lacks documentation of post-release success. More importantly, this project involved two Atlantic and one Pacific bottlenose dolphin that were released in the Turks and Caicos Islands, far from their stocks of origin, raaising concern about genetic mixing. Another well-known effort was an attempt in Australia (1992) to return captive aquarium dolphins, including some captive born, to the wild. The protocols for monitoring the dolphins' behavior, acclimation, foraging skills, social-groupings, etc. were detailed and approached in a scientific manner. Although there was a clear effort to establish scientifically sound protocols that would be available for repeatable projects in the future, this project resulted in a recapture of some of the dolphins due to starvation and declining health. Of the nine dolphins released by this project, three had to be recaptured, one was presumed dead (a calf), and no confirmed sightings were made of the remaining dolphins 43 days after their release.

With regard to "Keiko," "Lolita," and "Bogie" and "Bacall", NMFS has received no acceptable applications for scientific research permits to release these animals. Specifically with respect to the campaign to "Free Willy" to his native waters off the coast of Iceland, NMFS has no knowledge that the Icelandic government would approve such a reintroduction. Regardless of an application's bona fide scientific merits, no permit could be issued without the foreign government's consent to allow the animal to be exported and released into their jurisdictional waters.

In May 1996, two unauthorized releases of captive dolphins to the wild occurred. On May 16, the open water pen holding Bogie and Bacall of the "Welcome Home Project" was vandalized, allowing the two dolphins to escape into the Indian River south of Melbourne, Florida. On May 23, key personnel at the SDS illegally transported and released two of the ex-Navy dolphins, "Luther" and "Buck", into Gulf waters off of the Florida Keys. NMFS and stranding network officials immediately began receiving reports of Luther begging from boats and jet skis in the area. Within two weeks Luther and Buck were separately rescued. Both were found in a state of dehydration and had suffered lacerations. Buck, who was rescued last, was visibly emaciated and considerably underweight. Efforts to find Bogie and Bacall continue.

On June 7, the remaining Navy dolphin at SDS, "Jake," was removed from the facility by NMFS and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service after SDS's license was suspended due to repeated violations of the Animal Welfare Act.

For more information, contact the Permits Division at (301) 713-2289.

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