Photo courtesy of Unsplash
On March 10th, 2023, Kiska, the “world’s loneliest orca” passed away at the age of 47 at MarineLand, Canada. She was Canada’s last captive orca and lived alone in her tank for 11 years, following the deaths of her five calves and the loss of her tank mates. More about her story can be found here. Her death sparked outrage regarding the issues surrounding the utilization of killer whales for entertainment, serving as a reminder of why such free-ranging, intelligent, and emotionally complex animals should not be taken from their natural habitat to be placed in captivity.
In the wild, male killer whales live for an average of 30 years, sometimes up to 60 years. For a female orca in the wild, the average life expectancy is 50 years, though some can live up to 80 or 90. Out in the oceans, orcas live in pods made up of extended family members that they form close bonds with, and together they share the responsibility of hunting, raising their young, and taking care of the sick or injured. Because of their social nature and need for open spaces for playing, hunting, and migrating, many issues have arisen surrounding the captivity of orcas for entertainment purposes. In the U.S., marine parks like SeaWorld San Diego, SeaWorld Orlando, and Miami Seaquarium all currently keep orcas.
In the past, the federal government issued permits for display facilities in the U.S. to legally import or capture orcas, but the wild capture of an orca in U.S. waters has not occurred since 1976. Instead, most facilities rely on breeding captive orcas to maintain their populations. The U.S. currently does not have federal legislation prohibiting the captivity of orcas, instead, legislation such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) instruct how facilities should house killer whales.
Recently, states have been taking up the responsibility to establish their own laws surrounding orca captivity. California passed the California Orca Protection Act in 2016, which states that it is illegal to “hold in captivity an orca, whether wild-caught or captive-bred, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, display, performance, or entertainment purposes.” This law has helped phase out the use of orcas in shows and has halted orca breeding programs in the state of California. In 2017, a federal bill was introduced titled the Orca Responsibility and Care Act (ORCA) to amend both the MMPA and the AWA to prohibit the taking, importing, and exporting of killer whales for entertainment purposes. If passed, it would be unlawful for any marine park in the U.S. to keep orcas in captivity for display. The SWIMS Act of 2022 takes it a step further, addressing not only killer whales, but beluga whales and pilot whales as well. If this bill is passed, it would amend the MMPA and prohibit the captivity and breeding of all these whales for public display.
Though legislation has been taking positive steps toward phasing out the captivity of killer whales, these mammals still face threats out in the open ocean, such as chemical contaminants, sound pollution, lack of prey, and becoming bycatch from fishing nets. If you’re looking for simple ways to help, making it a priority to follow eco-friendly boating practices can keep waters clear of toxic chemicals. Another way you can help is by being mindful of sustainable seafood options. Killer whales, specifically Southern resident orcas, rely almost exclusively on Chinook salmon (or King salmon), which are facing scarcity due to the effects of climate change. So consider buying more sustainable types of salmon, such as pink salmon, or maybe even consuming less fish each week.
In addition to being sentient, extremely intelligent, and emotionally connected to their pod members in complex ways, killer whales are also considered apex predators, so they face little natural threats. However, anthropogenic activity poses significant risks to their well-being and their populations, risks they haven’t had to face in the past. The protection and survival of this species lies not only in the hands of lawmakers, but in every individual that utilizes the oceans.
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Fisheries, N. O. A. A. (n.d.). Extinction Risk of Chinook Salmon Due to Climate Change. NOAA. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/west-coast/climate/extinction-risk-chinook-salmon-due-climate-change#:~:text=Our%20life%E2%80%91cycle%20models%20project,in%20freshwater%20temperature%20and%20flow.
Fisheries, N. O. A. A. (2022, December 30). Pink Salmon. NOAA. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/pink-salmon
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H.R.8514 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): SWIMS Act of 2022. (2022, August 29). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/8514
Keller, E. (2023, March 11). Kiska, the 'World's loneliest' orca, dead at age 47. New York Post. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://nypost.com/2023/03/10/kiska-the-worlds-loneliest-orca-dead-at-age-47/
The Whale Sanctuary Project | Back to Nature. (2023, March 12). Kiska: The Loneliest Whale in the world. The Whale Sanctuary Project | Back to Nature. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://whalesanctuaryproject.org/whales/lets-make-a-deal-kiska-ikaika/
Tierney, L. (1970, January 1). Overview of Laws Concerning Orcas in Captivity. Animal Law Legal Center. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://www.animallaw.info/article/overview-laws-concerning-orcas-captivity
Whale Sanctuary Project. (2022, July 28). New legislation would end whale captivity in United States . The Whale Sanctuary Project | Back to Nature. Retrieved March 20, 2023, from https://whalesanctuaryproject.org/new-legislation-would-end-whale-captivity-in-united-states/