When a small tourist park in NSW wanted to voluntarily stop breeding dolphins last year, Sea World suddenly found itself on its own.
The Queensland attraction is now the only one in Australia to breed dolphins in captivity, which the RSPCA says cannot be justified and should be banned.
But Sea World has no plans to discontinue its managed breeding program, as it makes a huge contribution to the well-being of the dolphins it keeps.
And the Queensland government says it will not follow NSW, which banned captive breeding of dolphins last year.
It was imposed after NSW’s sole remaining operator – the Dolphin Marine Conservation Park in Coffs Harbor – said it would no longer participate in the practice.
Further breeding was never really an issue as the park’s three remaining dolphins – all born in the park – are related. But what the ban has done is basically end the use of dolphins for entertainment in NSW.
It has long been illegal in Australia to capture wild dolphins for commercial purposes and without permission to breed, a new operator in NSW would not be able to maintain a captive population.
Sea World, on Queensland’s Gold Coast, is now all alone in Australia’s captive dolphin breeding programs associated with commercial ventures.
Each year, millions of tourists pay to visit the park, which offers adrenaline-pumping rides and opportunities to learn about and interact with a range of animals, including the 27 dolphins.
Visitors can also see dolphins perform in shows and pay extra to swim with them.
Without a doubt, some of the dolphins on display today would not have been alive if Sea World had not rescued and cared for them and given them a home.
Take RAAF for example. He was found as a young calf badly sunburned and stranded on the high tide line at Evans Head in NSW.
After weeks of care, he recovered but could not be released as he never learned how to survive in the wild.
But Sea World also breeds the two species it keeps – the offshore bottlenose dolphin and the coastal bottlenose dolphin, neither of which are endangered or threatened.
The RSPCA says there is no reason to continue breeding in captivity given the health of wild bottlenose dolphin populations.
“Young dolphins should not be born and raised in an artificial environment, destined to live for decades in pools and tanks where space is limited and the opportunity to exhibit much natural behavior is denied,” it wrote in a statement last year. a submission to a NSW parliamentary inquiry into the cetacean exhibit.
Wayne Phillips has been Sea World’s chief of marine sciences for the past two years and says that “conservation education” and animal welfare are the main reasons the park is breeding dolphins.
“These animals are ambassadors for their species. We see a strong role for zoological facilities in educating the public and maintaining that connection with nature,” he told AAP.
He says that the dolphins of Sea World also have a richer life thanks to breeding.
“Like grandchildren, they bring a whole shell and life into every household. We’re not going to take away anything that’s positive for the animals.”
The last birth was about two years ago and reproduction is carefully managed to ensure the three dolphin lagoon systems are not overcrowded. In general, that means keeping men and women separate, and occasionally using birth control.
If a pregnancy is desired, only unrelated animals are paired.
Mr. Phillips also points to wellness initiatives, including regular independent reviews and ongoing data collection on key indicators such as appetite and willingness to participate in activities.
But critics say that as long as Sea World is allowed to breed, it has a guaranteed supply chain. Of the 27 dolphins, 19 were bred.
Animal Justice Party MP Emma Hurst was deputy chair of the NSW cetacean inquiry and is among those demanding a ban on breeding in Queensland.
She says the state government is in denial about the inevitable death of dolphin parks and the public’s diminishing need to see intelligent, social animals locked in artificial environments.
Bans on the use of cetaceans for entertainment are global, and France and Canada have recently introduced bans. Queensland’s inaction is becoming a global disgrace, she says.
“A dolphin born in captivity can live up to 50 years. What happens to a dolphin born in captivity today – in 30 or 40 years – if they are no longer profitable?”
Isabella Clegg is an independent animal welfare expert who pays Sea World to assess its efforts.
“Based on the data I’ve collected from Sea World over the past two years, I think most of their cetaceans are in good health most of the time,” she says.
There is some evidence that the ability to reproduce is good for captive dolphins, she adds.
“The presence of juvenile dolphins in the group … increases positive social behavior in adults, allows women to experience very close social bonds, and decreases male-to-female compulsive behavior.”
dr. Clegg says whether dolphins are allowed to reproduce in captivity is an ethical question that ties into the wider issue of whether there is public support for the continuation of dolphin facilities.
“I don’t believe public opinion is clear on that,” she says.
“Ultimately, the continuation of aquariums and marine parks should be discussed in the same light as all zoos.
“I believe the Queensland Government and others should look at whether and how the display of wildlife in public supports education and conservation or not.”
In Queensland, Sea World’s dolphins are subject to the Exhibited Animals Act, which falls under the portfolio of Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Mark Furner.
He told AAP that a ban on breeding was not considered and that the law ensures that risks to animal welfare are “mitigated or minimized.”