About 4,600 dolphins, porpoises and small whales have been caught for display, research or military purposes in the last 30 years. As public tastes change, the industry moves from species to species, searching for new star attractions.
A deeply-felt and hard-fought argument over the whole question of keeping dolphins in captivity has been raging for the last 20 years or more. The arguments have been endlessly debated but positions remain polarized.
Some adopt and absolutist stance, abhorring the very notion of keeping any animal captive. Some argue a welfarist position, claiming the confinement of dolphins is cruel and inhumane. Others argue from an educational standpoint and stress the value of seeing dolphins at first hand, even though this experience is usually limited to watching them perform simple and repetitive tasks designed mainly for entertainment. Others dismiss such activities as nothing more than circus tricks and claim that real education now comes from global television, which brings us a constant diet of new footage fresh from the world's oceans.
In the absence of effective legislation, dolphins will continue to be held in captivity as long as they generate profits for the dolphinarium industry, which will go to great lengths to escape restrictive legislation and stay in operation.
In several parts of the world, the operations set up to supply live dolphins have exerted severe pressure on wild populations. This is perhaps best illustrated in the case of the bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico which, since 1914, have suffered the longest and largest of these live capture operations.
Marine mammal researchers Wells, Scott and Irvine have demonstrated that, near the coast at least, bottlenose dolphins live in local 'resident' populations with limited ranges. Live capture operations have, in many cases, repeatedly taken animals from a select few of these populations, severely reducing their numbers.
Under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), any depleted population, or any population whose status is unknown, should not be exploited at all. However, no quota system was established until 1977 and conservationists are concerned that the limits set - 2 per cent of a population in a given sub-area - are still too high.
These quotas take no account of other pressures on the dolphins, such as incidental catches by fisheries. Furthermore, 75 per cent of the dolphins captured are female and many are immature, resulting in long-term consequences for the future of the whole population.
NOTE - The MMPA has had several amendments made to it in the late 90's, this document does not take it's current status into account.
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