Belugas. John Holer, owner of the captive animal facility Marineland Canada, has a lot of them. In an around 35-43 total, the park has imported around 36 wild belugas from Russia since May 1999 – with big imports also coming in Oct ’99, Oct 2000, November ’03, June ’05 and Dec ’08. The zoo industry watch dog group Zoocheck places their total number of belugas exhibited at 51, number re-exported to other parks at 5, and their total dead at the park at 12. There are currently 78 belugas in captivity in North America in 8 different parks. Marineland holds the majority stock – the next closest being SeaWorld San Antonio with 10.
Although not without serious controversy – including maybe most notably the horrific death of baby beluga Skoot – Holer has been able to build the world’s largest collection of captive beluga whales. Although his captive breeding program has had lacklustre success with many infant deaths, he has also be able to stabilize near the same amount of animals wild caught over the last decade and a half.
Although Blackfish and Orcas currently hold the mantle as far as anti-captivity concern goes, most will remember the Georgia Aquariums recent attempt at a permit to import 18 wild caught belugas. After the public comment process that application was denied, however, the Marineland belugas played a role throughout. Some advocates pressured the Georgia Aquarium to look to Marineland Canada to source their belugas, while the Georgia Aquarium itself publicly acknowledged that they had attempted to negotiate a loan or sale of some of the Marineland belugas. In the end those negotiations, as well as the NOAA permit, both failed.
Fast forward 8 months later and the pressure mounted from the documentary film “Blackfish,” combined with large scale defection from the captive marine mammal industry and mass protests, the focus currently is on orca captivity. The introduction of symbolic bills like the Orca Welfare and Safety Act in California and similar efforts in New York are the thing of viral news media. A new high water mark for the anti-captivity movement and cause for celebration.
The Vancouver Aquarium, the only other captive marine mammal facility in Canada, are feeling the effects of this push even though they have not had a captive Orca since 2001. With expansion construction underway and a parks board review pending, people are organizing to make the issue of captive beluga and dolphin populations at the Aquarium an issue. All of this pressure is forcing the captive animal industry to start dividing up practices. The CEO for the Vancouver Aquarium John Nightingale just yesterday made these comments to the Globe and Mail.
He said Blackfish has generated interest about mammals in captivity, but beluga whales and the orcas in the film are very different. He said belugas are “pretty much an ideal animal to have in an aquarium” because they are not long-distance swimmers.
“Killer whales are huge animals. They’re the Ferrari of the whale world. A beluga whale is the Volkswagen bus of the whale world,” he said.
Aside from being a dumb comparison and something which will not be looked favourably upon by CAZA, Nightingale’s comments are indicative of a potential industry shift which would sacrifice far ranging cetacean captivity for animals who are not far ranging – seals, walruses, belugas. This means that even if advocates are successful in opposing orca and dolphin captivity – the industry may possibly shift gears towards beluga captivity.
Other indicators of this point to efforts on the part of Marineland Canada to start performing with belugas – an industry first. They rolled out a beluga show for their recent 2013 season to questionable success – including an incident and injury with a trainer which was filmed and posted on youtube. This event countered the idea that belugas, being more docile, would be more receptive to the stress of training and performance. Still, this attempt at developing shows is as much about introducing a new program at Marineland as it is about increasing the market value for captive belugas.
All of these signs point to something rather scary – that even if Holer and the captive animal industry abandons captive orca and dolphin programs, Holer can still win if the industry shifts to captive beluga programs instead.* He holds the majority share and if precedent is already set for denials of wild caught permits in the United States (and he still has the ability to engage in importing wild caught belugas) he holds all of the cards. The fact that the Georgia Aquarium could not negotiate a deal with Holer illustrates that Holer’s price was most likely too high – possibly because Holer is banking on cashing in on this potential industry shift. Losing 18 belugas all at once would cut his stock in half and redistribute the balance of captive belugas. Holer is much more likely to look for lucrative loans for a few belugas spread out across multiple different parks in order to continue to control this balance. On the opposite side, if the industry shifts away from orcas Holer has less to lose – he only has one left (Kiska). Dolphins? Only 5 left. An industry shift towards belugas would actually benefit Holer far more than it would any other captive marine mammal facility in North America. Advocates for decades have taken pot shots at Holer’s sloppy dress, lack of tact and erratic ways, but the man did somehow manage to build an empire.
So why does all of this matter? Well, if efforts continue to be focused on specific animals/specific practices there will inevitably be efforts on the part of advocates that will actually benefit many in this industry. This is one such scenario that at this point is likely if the pressure currently mounted against orca captivity continues. “Differential Accumulation” is a an economic concept whereby we can understand how pressure on part of an industry or brand will shift profit or power elsewhere – i.e. “the commodification of power.”** We can see this clearly as families or folks pick up from Marineland and instead get seasons passes at African Lion Safari, but we can also see it within industry and pressure encourages profit making elsewhere (in this case the control of the market share of captive belugas). Advocates must have a broader understanding of what “captivity” means and how this industry works if they are going to be able to effectively collapse it and not just “shift” it.
This also allows us to identify some important pressure points. Under this framework it becomes apparent how important it is to fight to close the wild capture import/export loophole in Canada. With this loophole open, Marineland Canada (and to small extent potentially the Vancouver Aquarium if they actually plan to expand this program) can continue to source wild caught belugas and then themselves provide a loophole for American parks who would not be able to source these animals directly via wild capture. ALL anti-captivity advocates in North America should be working to close that loophole immediately. Aside from this, it illustrates why our language and framing of issues is important and why our campaigns and opposition has to be structured in networks that similarly reflect and oppose the captive animal industry and their organizations like CAZA, AZA, WAZA, etc. All of these parks are connected through this hub, meanwhile the majority of anti captivity organizing is done in isolation, or on social media. If we want to ensure we are not creating a process of “whack a mole” – running from facility to facility to practice to practice to animal to animal – then we will need organize ourselves along these same lines with competent on the ground campaigns against each facility coordinated and networked together. From a small base of marine mammal advocates, build out from there to include the full range of captive animal populations. This is the only way to combat against capital and power merely shifting – a coordinated and networked protest against this industry as a whole. Those who are reformist in mind will point to the need to effect what change we can, and how much of an accomplishment ending orca captivity could be. They are correct to an extent, however, if the industry just shifts capital the industry may shift practices but it does not necessarily cede power. The goal of anti-captivity advocates should be to weaken the captive animal industries power as a whole while simultaneously regulating, reforming, legislating and ending practices and programs of captivity.
* In early 90’s hip hop terms this is best exemplified through the saying “Dre Day only make Eazy’s pay day” in his song “Real Mutha Fucking G’s” (NSFW) in reference to Eazy-E (Eric Wright) holding the commercial rights to artists Dr. Dre’s rights – thereby ironically making money off of diss records Dr. Dre was writing about Eazy-E.
** For an amazing introduction to Political Economic Disruption Campaigns (PEDCs) and differential accumulation I’d suggest D.T. Cochrane and Jeff Monaghan’s “Fight to Win! Tools for Confronting Capital” in “The Accumulation of Freedom” Anthology.