The World Orca Trade
Chapter 3 of The Performing Orca-Why the Show Must Stop by Erich Hoyt, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Bath U.K. 1992 [Reprinted with permission of publisher]


The wind is up, the sea slopping over the boat, when orcas are sighted. The race is on. Yet the "contest" is one-sided. Trying to catch a several-ton, fearless animal - one that could outrun or easily dive to avoid the fastest ships, and one that could jump over or break through an encircling net - simply requires a knowledge of orca's "weak points".

First, there is the family instinct, living in their tight family groups called pods. If one whale is captured, others will often hang around to give support. This allows the collector to make a selection.

Second, orcas are curious predators by nature and at times so eager for food, that caution is abandoned. Orcas will sometimes swim up to fishing boats as the nets close, to take any spillage. In Icelandic waters, as well as off the Northwest Coast of North America, the two main areas where orcas have been captured, they have sometimes been caught in seine or gill nets by accident.

Third, once captured, most orcas respect nets. Although they could break through or easily jump over most nets, they rarely attempt escape. Some may be aware of the dangers of nets and know not to approach too close to the mesh.

Orca capture methods have changed somewhat since the capture of Corky and the others in the late 1960s. The sharp learning curve occurred after the first whales were caught in 1961 and 1964. In those early years, several orcas died accidentally in the nets after becoming entangled, and at least one died after being tranquilized with a dart. In a 1962 attempted capture, Marineland collectors shot a mature male and female orca, killing the female, after the boat's propeller became entangled in a line attached to a hoopnet that had snared the female. The whales "attacked" the boat which made the collectors fear for their lives and bring out the guns. The first collectors to "perfect" a successful catching method, by the late 1960s, were Ted Griffin and Don Goldsberry. Goldsberry continued to catch orcas in Puget Sound in the 1970s, becoming Sea World's director of collecting and moving on to Iceland by 1976. As recently as July 1987, on an orca import permit application, Goldsberry was listed as "Corporate Director of Collecting", although Sea World of Texas's George J. Becker, Jr., refused to acknowledge that Goldsberry still worked for the corporation.

Trying to catch orcas, captors have used harpoons, hoop nets, gill and purse seine nets. In 1962, Marineland (California) collectors hoop-netted an orca, but the line got caught in the propeller. Some of the Japanese captures of the 1970s and 1980s, in which orcas were actually harpooned, were similarly inept; two died within the year and a third survived two years. For the most part since the 1960s, two main methods have been employed. The first, used primarily in British Columbia and Washington, involves waiting to ambush whales as they swim into a narrow, shallow water inlet, then stringing a net across the mouth, entrapping the entire pod. Individual animals can then be selected, often by corralling them in separate enclosures. If the orcas will not swim into an inlet or bay, some captors, notably Don Goldsberry, have used explosives known as seal bombs to drive the whales in.

The other main method - begun in Washington State and later taken to Iceland where orcas must be caught in the open sea far from land - requires that one or more whales be encircled with a purse seine net. This is the most popular method and the one that is still used today Working with Don Goldsberry of Sea World and Jon Gunnarsson of Saedyrasafnid Aquarium in Iceland, W.H. Dudok van Heel from Dolfinarium Harderwijk in Holland helped adapt this method to Iceland's often rough open waters. He describes two techniques for distracting the orcas long enough to get the purse seine around them.

One is to follow a herring fisherman and then surround the whales as they gather to take the fish that spill out as the net is lifted aboard. The main requirement is precise timing: to close the net around the whales just as the herring purse-seiner steams away The other technique is to purchase a load of 700 to 900 pounds (roughly 300 to 400 kg) of fresh herring and dump it in front of an approaching pod. As the whales swim in for food, the seine net is set around the whales.

Once captured, the orcas usually swim round and round, checking out the boundaries. As the net is drawn tighter, they will often lie at the surface, stationed along the float line that supports the net, facing out to sea. They become docile, accepting their fate. Only a few orcas have ever escaped, usually older animals that seem to know fishing nets and break through them.

Orca captures have mainly occurred in two areas of the world, and by only a few collectors (See Live Orca Captures, p 89). Of 127 captured and sent to marine parks, 56 came from the British Columbia-Washington State population and 55 from around Iceland - a total of 87 percent from these two major areas.

In each area, the characteristic pattern was an early period when captures were under few or no regulations and the orcas were accidentally captured by fishermen or by those with little or no experience with orcas. Within a few years, the field narrowed to two collectors or collecting teams in British Columbia, one in Washington State and two in Iceland. All had collecting experience, and brought along marine mammal veterinarians to examine the whales after capture. Some were owners or collectors for a marine park and others had close links to one or more parks that would buy any whales they captured.

The captures of the BC-Washington population ended in the mid 1970s. As local orca numbers (which collectors had estimated in the thousands), turned out to be only about 300 based on photo-ID studies, people began to question seriously the capture of orcas. In the southern community of orcas, where 45 were captured - cutting the population to about 70 percent of its peak size - it has yet to recover to pre-collection levels. The northern community, less exploited except for the A5 pod, has almost returned to its original numbers. But public sentiment has become the main factor restricting further captures in British Columbia and Washington. In February 1976, Sea World collector Don Goldsberry captured six orcas in Budd Inlet, deep inside Puget Sound. He was accused of violating the terms of his permit. This time, he was seen using seal bombs and buzzing aircraft to herd the whales and drive them into his nets. He was sued by the State of Washington. Eventually, the matter was settled when the state agreed to drop charges if Goldsberry and Sea World let the whales go and agreed never again to catch whales in Puget Sound.

In British Columbia, the last capture was in 1975. A large segment of the public, as well as local environmental groups in British Columbia, as in Washington, remain strongly opposed to more captures. Even though permits may be requested, it seems unlikely that any more orca captures will occur. Bob Wright, of Sealand (Victoria, BC), obtained a permit in 1982 to capture more orcas but was "harrassed" on land and at sea by demonstrators seeking to prevent the captures. He finally gave up and purchased three orcas from Iceland.

After the Washington-BC orca captures ended, Sea World (the main player and driver of the world orca trade, which has exhibited some 36 orcas, nearly a quarter of all those exhibited world-wide), explored the possibility of capturing orcas in Antarctica and Alaska. Antarctica presented difficult logistics because of its remote locale. Alaska proved to have an orca population too close - geographically and emotionally - to residents and environmental groups who did not want local wildlife to be removed. Sea World did obtain a permit in 1983 to capture 100 Alaskan orcas, 90 of which were to be temporary capture for study and 10 to be sent to Sea World marine parks, but the company was forced to leave Alaska empty-handed. In a three-year court battle, the permit was legally challenged, lost, appealed and lost again; but again, the key was overwhelming public sentiment against taking orcas.

Between 1976 and 1989, Iceland has proved the best source for Sea World and other marine parks wanting to capture or buy new orcas. At first, the captures were welcomed by Iceland. Between 1955 and 1972, Norwegian whalers took about 300 orcas around Iceland and an undetermined number of others were killed in supposed conflicts with Icelandic herring fishermen. Exporting orcas to marine parks seemed a way to keep the fishermen happy as well as a great money-making business, but it has not proved so, at least not for the Icelandic captors, partly because of the uncertainty of the market fueled by the difficulty of obtaining orca import permits in the United States. It has proved easier for US marine parks such as Sea World to import orcas on "breeding loan" from other establishments. In that case no payment is involved. But sometimes Sea World has paid other marine parks many times the initial cost price for an orca that is partly trained and adjusted to captivity.

As subsequent details of the Icelandic captures have come to light - orcas kept in poor holding tanks and some dying while awaiting shipment from Iceland, plus the lack of definitive population estimates - opposition has mounted. Population studies have been carried on for several years, with more than 200 photo-identified by Iceland's Marine Research Institute as of August 1991, but the research is incomplete. Shipboard surveys by Sigurjonsson and Gunnlaugsson in 1987 produced estimates of 6,618 orcas (95 percent lower confidence limit of 3,850) around Iceland and the Faroe Islands. In any case, the Icelandic Minister of Fisheries has restricted the permits to ten or fewer per year in every year but one. Total removals have averaged less than four per year - probably too few to endanger the population. Perhaps in the next decade or two, if detailed photographic identification studies can be continued off Iceland, researchers will learn exactly how many whales there are, whether the same pods have repeatedly been captured and whether certain pods have been captured to excess, decreasing their breeding - and survival - potential.

As of January 1992, the future of the Icelandic captures was uncertain. In 1989, Sean R. Whyte and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (UK) began an intensive effort to stop the orca captures, meeting with various government ministers in Iceland. This effort was supported by numerous conservation and environmental groups around the world. In Iceland itself, Magnus Skarphedinsson and several others have been instrumental in creating public awareness of the captures and sympathy for the orcas. In 1990 and 1991, Helgi Jonasson of the Fauna Company, who along with Jon Gunnarsson has conducted all the orca captures since 1978, applied for orca permits but the Minister of Fisheries denied them.

Live orcas and other small cetaceans have also been offered for sale in Japan. Certain collectors working with the Japanese have defended the capturing of cetaceans there for the same reasons as for Iceland - that the animals are being killed anyway and that local respect for live whales and dolphins may well result. But California marine mammal veterinarian and dolphin collector Jay C. Sweeney, filmed in Japan overseeing dolphin captures, seemed uncomfortable working around the Japanese fishermen and tried to deny he worked with them. The workers were fishermen who practice "oikomiryo", the drive fishery that has killed thousands of small whales and dolphins over the years at Taiji and Iki Island. Environmental groups have questioned the integrity of marine parks buying cetaceans from a country that engages in the killing of small whales and dolphins along its coast and continues to fight the world-wide moratorium against whaling. For at least some species, the captures of small whales and dolphins in Japan have been accomplished in a much more casual fashion, with mortalities during and soon after capture. Of course, the dolphins, pilot whales and false killer whales (another species in the same family as orcas) captured alive and sent to Japanese marine parks or exported world-wide, would have been sent to the fish market for slaughter.

The number of orca captures in Japan stands at thirteen, and no marine park outside of Japan has purchased orcas there. And Kamogawa Sea World, the main longstanding marine park to exhibit orcas in Japan, has usually turned to North America or Iceland for their orcas, although it would be cheaper to buy locally, and easier, without import permits or long-distance transport. Recently even Shirahama World Safari, which had bought four orcas from Taiji fishermen, two of which died within two months of capture, decided to buy Icelandic orcas in the spring of 1990 - despite the cost of flying the whales 7,500 miles (1@,000 km) to Japan. The better marine parks do not want to be associated with the Japanese captures, partly because of the inexperience of the captors with live animals, but perhaps also, because of the international stigma attached to the slaughters in the annual drive fishery.

The marine mammal trade has been carried on by relatively few individuals, although it is not restricted to those with prior experience. Off Iceland, in the early 1970s, W.H. Dudok van Heel tells of herring fishermen who had caught an orca in their net and attempted to take the animal on board alive. The fishermen, ignorant of the methods for capturing orcas that had been worked out in the North Pacific, lifted the whale by the tailstock using the ship's derrick. When the ship rocked in the seas, the animal became a huge pendulum which smashed with resounding smacks into the ship's side "to what must have been a horrible death" in Dudok van Heel's words. Yet marine mammal collectors, like many fishermen, are reluctant to report mortalities in principle especially when they occur far from shore with no independent observers aboard. Examining the known statistics, we find relatively few accidental orca deaths - 11 in all reported since 1961. The last deaths in the records were in 1970 at Penn Cove, Washington, during a Goldsberry-Griffin capture and these were revealed only much later when four carcasses washed ashore. In Iceland, as in BC-Washington, we are supposed to continue to trust what is reported. It would be better if impartial observers could be stationed on board collecting ships, as is now done on some US commercial fishing boats that have had problems with incidental killing of marine mammals in seine or gill nets. Failing to report and tabulate whales injured or killed during captures makes a mockery of any attempt to manage the captures scientifically. However, due to the high profile of orca captures and the scientific interest of Iceland's Marine Research Institute, additional mortalities to those reported are probably few in number.

A final aspect of capturing orcas - one that is rarely considered - is the effect of capture on those animals left in the pod. If the pod is small (fewer than six animals), as in the transient pods of the North Pacific, then capture of even one individual may affect the pod's ability to survive. In March 1970, Charlie Chin's (M) pod, a potentially productive transient pod with five members, including four females, was captured in a bay on southern Vancouver Island. The entire pod was lined up to be sent to various marine parks. Two were transported soon after capture to Sealand in Victoria, whose owner, Bob Wright, had made the capture. The other three remained in the holding pens, refusing to eat for more than 70 days. After one female died of malnutrition, and was quietly disposed of at sea, the remaining two, Charlie Chin and another female, began to eat and were then sold to a Texas marine park. One night, however, before they could be transported, they were released without Sealand's permission. Since 1970, the pod has gained two calves, only one of which remains with the pod today. Part of a transient pod's strategy for survival, unlike the resident-type pods, may be leaving the pod to join another transient pod. They do travel together sometimes in transient superpods. Still, when Charlie Chin and the female end their breeding years, their pod may die out.

No orca captures are known to have eliminated a pod, although a number of subpods, composed of a mother, her sons and daughters and grandcalves have been wiped out. These subpods are often fairly independent, travelling apart from their pods for extended periods, and may be in the process of forming new pods. And there may be other implications in which survival is reduced for those left. Research in the Northwest US and Canada suggests that orca males sometimes die soon after their mothers die. To be sure, males have a much shorter life span than females. But it may mean that the capture of mothers, even if past breeding age, contributes to the premature death of their male progeny.

Most of the whales captured, however, were younger, or male, orcas. In general, aquarium captures alone would not seem to have a great impact on pod survival, but no pod has yet been studied before, during and after capture to assess the immediate and long-lasting effects of removing some of them. Minimal data are available from Iceland on the pods captured there. Off British Columbia, those pods known to have been captured have survived and some pods have already returned to pre-capture levels. However, all three pods from the southern community and the A5 pod in the northern community are still short of original numbers. In 1987, in the southern community, there were 84 orcas - still 12 animals fewer than at its peak. At current birth rates, it could be the mid-1990s before their numbers return.

Although not endangered, orcas are not especially numerous. They are found in every ocean of the world. But feeding at the top of the food chain, their numbers are low compared to many other dolphin and baleen whale species, and the rate of increase for one population, the population growth rate, was only 2.92 percent a year. Even considering the locally intensive captures of the 1960s and 1970s off southern Vancouver Island, the captures cannot be said to have damaged that population's prospects for survival. Yet, good management dictates caution and limits the number that can be removed from any population to a very few.

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