SeaWorld San Diego made news in September 2001 when Nakai, the first Orca conceived through artificial insemination was born. Since then, the aquatic park conglomerate has successfully used artificial insemination to breed dolphins and killer whales, using sperm exchanged between parks to assure genetic diversity—for example, a Pacific White Sided dolphin born at the San Antonio SeaWorld in September was conceived from sperm donated by a dolphin at Sea World Japan.
Now a SeaWorld vet is asking the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for permission to harvest reproductive cells from animals killed in international waters through fishing practices that would otherwise be illegal in the United States. SeaWorld also wants to collect sex organs of pinnipeds (seals, sea lions and walruses) and cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in order to further study marine mammal reproductive physiology.
Last Friday, a small group of demonstrators organized by San Diego Animal Advocates staged a protest in front of NMFS' Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. The protest took an irreverent jab at SeaWorld's request to harvest sex organs—castration jokes were plentiful—but at the same time, demonstrators questioned whether the permit, if approved, could spawn inhumane treatment of marine mammals.
Animal Advocates spokesperson Jane Carhill said she fears that if the permit is approved, it would essentially rubber stamp reckless fishing practices, such as Japanese drive fishing, where fishing boats herd dolphins and whales into shallow water until they're forced to beach themselves. The animals are then slaughtered for their parts or sold into captivity. According to an investigation by PBS' Frontline, SeaWorld allegedly acquired three pseudorcas, or “false” killer whales from a Japanese drive fishery in 1987.
“I don't want to hear, "'They'll do it anyway, so why waste [animal parts],'" Carhill told CityBeat. “SeaWorld needs to stand up against inhumane fishing practices” rather than ask to obtain the by-products.
While some of the specimens will come from cooperating marine research institutes and other aquatic theme parks—such as Dolphin Encounters, located in the Bahamas—the permit application expressly states that SeaWorld will accept body parts and viable eggs and sperm from animals killed in fisheries and fishing operations that would be considered illegal in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The law, passed in 1972, prohibits U.S. citizens and anyone in U.S. jurisdiction from “harassing,” catching or killing marine mammals without a permit.
The primary applicant for the permit is Dr. Todd Robeck, whose official title, according to a SeaWorld statement, is corporate director of theriogenology for the Busch Entertainment Corporation's Corporate Zoological Operations. (Theriogenology is the study and practice of animal reproduction.) Robeck, who's worked for SeaWorld for a decade, is described by him employer as “the only veterinarian worldwide who specializes in cetacean reproductive physiology.” Robeck was not available for comment.
In the permit application, Robeck asks the NMFS to allow SeaWorld to collect, import and export “an unlimited number of samples” of body fluids and sex organs from dead marine mammals and semen, blood, saliva, urine and eye secretions from live captive marine mammals. The application expressly states that research will not be conducted on live animals nor will live animals be captured under the auspices of genetic research.
Collection purposes, Robeck states, are to expand and diversify SeaWorld's existing marine mammal population through artificial insemination and provide specimens necessary for research into marine mammal reproductive physiology. The point, he explains, is to “infuse new genetic material into closed captive populations.” In other words, by obtaining sperm from wild populations, SeaWorld's captive populations will be saved from inbreeding.
This push to maintain genetic diversity “is a problem the captive industry has created for themselves,” said Rick Trout of the Florida Marine Mammal Conservancy, who was in San Diego for the demonstration Friday.
Opponents claim that parties who turn over parts and specimens to SeaWorld will receive financial compensation, but SeaWorld spokesperson Kelly Terry emphasized that there's no compensation involved.
The permit request expands on a prior permit SeaWorld obtained from the NMFS in 1998 that expired last year. That permit allowed the theme park to collect tissue and specimen samples from live captive animals, animals killed through subsistence harvesting and animals found dead of natural causes, such as stranding. The purpose of the 1998 permit request was to study “the biology and life history of various marine species.” NMFS issued the permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act provision that no animals are to be harassed or killed for the purpose of research.
An NMFS official who asked that his name be withheld, said requests from research institutes to collect marine mammal parts for study are not new. In fact, pending along with SeaWorld's application are two others, one of them from the National Museum of History. What is new, the official said, is SeaWorld's plan to collect samples from non-captive marine mammals in order to artificially inseminate captive marine mammals.
The permit application was initially submitted August of last year, but didn't hit the radar of animal-rights activists until Oct. 9, when it appeared in the federal register—a daily record of notices put out by federal agencies—thereby opening the application up to a 30-day public-comment period.
A letter sent last week by three animal-rights groups to the head of the NMFS permit division, protesting the permit application, argues that if NMFS issues the permit, the agency would be obligating itself to “ensure the financial success of the commercial captive marine mammal industry.” The letter also accuses Sea World of strong-arming the NMFS. Language in the application, the letter points out, suggests that if the NMFS fails to grant the permit, it would later be forced “to allow for the capture of wild marine mammals if the industry failed to maintain a diverse population.”
Monica Engebretson, senior program coordinator with the Animal Protection Institute, is one of the co-authors of the letter. SeaWorld's plans to grow their marine mammal assisted reproduction program “allows them to sort of evade the whole negative publicity they would get [catching wild animals],” she said.
In prepared statement issued last week by SeaWorld, Robeck claims that information gleaned through research could go towards protecting endangered species.
Engebretson isn't buying it.
“The dolphins they breed aren't endangered,” she said, “so it doesn't have anything to do with saving species. It has to do with continuing their profit base.”
Studies overwhelmingly show that research done on captive animals rarely can be applied to their wild counterparts, Engebretson said. SeaWorld has publicly stated that it doesn't believe in captive-bred release programs.The NMFS official emphasized that the permit application is in the early stages of review and will be evaluated based on public comment, expert testimony and the opinions of the Marine Mammal Commission—the agency charged with enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The process, ideally, takes 90 days, he said. If approved the permit would include a stated provision that only humane practices be used in sample collection.