This sensitive topic has been subject of heated debate for decades.
The opening of Marine Land Studio in Florida in 1930 created a craze for aquariums and zoos in North America, Europe and Australia. Researchers then capitalized on the opportunity to study whales up close, rather than from the surface. These aquarium studies have provided many discoveries (both in whales and other species) in diverse aspects such as communication, acoustics, brain functions, echolocation, sleep, behaviour, etc. Additionally, such research has led to a number of conservation efforts in the wild. For example, studies on cetacean hearing have revealed the impact of noise pollution on dolphins as well as seals. Findings on the cognitive abilities of dolphins have fascinated many.
Some of these discoveries have recently rekindled the controversy: are dolphins too intelligent to be kept in a cage? This question is at the centre of new debates on ethics and animal rights.
It is more difficult and costly to keep whales in an aquarium. Doing so requires quality food, specific veterinary care, sufficiently large enclosures and an efficient water treatment system. As these standards are difficult to achieve, the living conditions of the animals in some facilities are not always optimal. Mortality rates in aquariums are generally higher than in the wild.
Many counter-argue by pointing out the educational value of encounters that people have with whales and dolphins in aquariums. Some aquariums offer programs that deliver messages promoting the protection of these animals and the conservation of their habitat, which contrast with the more clownish shows offered.
Within the scientific community, opinions vary. Some argue that breakthroughs in research would not be possible without aquarium studies. Indeed, we know much less about baleen whales such as rorquals since they have only been studied in their natural habitat. Others state that it is possible to obtain significant results in the wild without disturbing the animals’ behaviour.
According to Robert Michaud (GREMM), if we opt to keep animals in captivity, whether in a zoo or an aquarium, it is our responsibility to ensure optimal living conditions for the animals, a transfer of knowledge through research, and the presence of educational programs. Pierre Béland (St. Lawrence National Institute of Ecotoxicology) highlights the importance of preserving habitat before the species themselves, as the main threat to these declining species is the degradation of their natural habitat, which is often attributable to Man.
To learn more:
Captive breeding according to Robert Michaud (in French)
A legally protected killer whale in captivity (in French)