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NOAA-NMFS Failures in Marine Mammal Inventory Management for Killer Whales

March 18, 2011

Since the 1972 implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has had jurisdiction over the capture, export, import and public display of all cetaceans and pinnipeds (killer whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, and the like, with some exceptions) and the issuance of permits to satisfy the MMPA. Additionally, under MMPA Regulations, the NMFS is required to maintain an inventory of marine mammals held in public display facilities.

NMFS data on killer whale captures is grossly inadequate

NMFS data on killer whale captures is grossly inadequate

An audit of NMFS Marine Mammal Inventory Reports (MMIRs) has revealed the shockingly sparse data contained within the MMIR database in regard to killer whales (Orcinus orca). For nearly 40 years, NMFS has tracked the status of more than 7,400 individual marine mammals, yet only 1.4% of those consist of the relatively small population of 103 orcas for which NMFS maintains records. The historical and current record keeping for killer whales has been found to be grossly inadequate.

National Marine Fisheries Service Vision:

“As a steward, NOAA Fisheries has an obligation to conserve, protect, and manage living marine resources in a way that ensures their continuation as functioning components of marine ecosystems, affords economic opportunities, and enhances the quality of life for the American public.”

One would assume that data compiled by the sole government oversight agency charged with this task would be thorough and complete especially where it concerns large, intelligent, sentient beings such as orcas. However, these inadequacies are just the tip of the iceberg. Data deficiencies appear to be widespread throughout the NMFS inventory information about the thousands of dolphins, seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals.

A database of orca inventory information has been reconstructed by The Orca Project to simulate the NMFS MMIR database, incorporating unknown, blank, missing or incorrect data into the orca inventories through historical record research. In the report which can be viewed in its entirety below, you’ll find the scarcity of data readily available from the NMFS is quickly apparent from this reconstruction, and the extent of information that has not been recorded is alarming.

After data is incorporated from external sources and historical records into the existing killer whale records on file with NMFS, the following statistics are produced:

Of the 103 orcas on file with NMFS:

  • 33 are still alive (21 in U.S. parks, 12 in foreign countries).
  • 69 are deceased. 15 of these 69 are still shown as living by NMFS. 4 of these 69 are listed as dead, but no cause of death is given. One orca (Keiko) was released.
  • 35 orcas were born in captivity, 67 were wild captures, and 1 (Sandy) was beached/stranded.
  • 20 are listed as from “unknown” origins, and many are currently listed in “Unknown” facilities by NMFS.
  • Approx 24 orcas tracked by NMFS have never been in the United States (before or after capture).
  • Orcas passed through approximately 58 marine parks, aquariums and holding areas– only approximately 25 of which can be found through MMIR data.
  • 37 of the 103 orcas spent time at Saedyrasafnid Aquarium in Iceland after their capture before being shipped to other destinations, but there is not a single report of this facility in the MMIRs (although information about a few may exist in import permit data).
  • There have been 224 transfers/imports of orcas. NMFS records show only 43 transfers and 24 imports for a total of 67 (import permits may indicate some prior movements).
  • The purpose reported for all captive orcas has been public display, with the exception of two unnamed orcas taken for “scientific research” in 1997 in Taiji, Japan. Both of those orcas died within 4 months.

In addition to the statistics listed above, no MMIR data exists for the following 123 orcas:

  • An additional 32 orcas have been captured in, rescued from, born in or transferred to the United States, for which no MMIR data exists. 3 were released, 1 escaped, and 28 are deceased.
Click here to open/view/download the Marine Mammal Protection Act 16 USC § 1374 Sec 104 Regarding NMFS permits (8 pgs) in PDF format

MMPA Sec 104- NMFS permits

  • An additional 20 captive-born orcas, which are the progeny of orcas on file and tracked by NMFS, have no MMIR data and are not recorded with NMFS as required by USC § 1374 Sec 104 (c) (10). 14 are deceased, and 6 are living.
  • An additional 26 orcas have spent time at facilities on file with NMFS. No MMIR data exists for these 26 orcas. 25 are deceased, and 1 is living.
  • Additionally, there have been 28 unsuccessful orca births (miscarried, stillborn or otherwise unsuccessful) at NMFS-monitored facilities. NMFS has not been required to maintain records on unsuccessful births.
  • For informational purposes, 17 orcas reside or resided at foreign facilities that are currently in operation for which NMFS may have oversight on future transactions. None of these facilities or orcas are on file with NMFS. No MMIR data exists for these 17 orcas (14 deceased, 1 living and 2 unsuccessful births).

The Orca Project’s Report on MMIR Deficiencies can be seen in it’s entirety below, or you can also open/view/download the complete report (25 pgs) in PDF format by clicking HERE. “Black” entries are from NMFS MMIR database sources and “Red” entries are from alternate sources to replace “Unknown”, blank, missing or incorrect NMFS MMIR data.

View this document on Scribd

It is the intent of this report to recommend to the governing bodies of the MMPA that no further permits be issued to any active marine mammal park, aquarium, facility, or permit holder for the capture, import, export, or transfer of marine mammals until all outstanding incomplete, unknown and incorrect data is updated to conform, to the best of their ability and to the satisfaction of NMFS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) United States Department of Commerce (USDOC) and the Marine Mammal Commission (MMC) with MMPA regulations in place at the time of capture, import, export, transfer or death and that all recent and current transactions under the MMPA (in its’ current form) be strictly adhered to before issuance of any future permits and/or that current permits be revoked in accordance with 16 USC § 1374 Sec 104 (c) (2) (D) for the failure to meet the requirements for the public display of marine mammals.

Transporting a Killer Whale

Only 30% of orca transfers/imports are recorded in NMFS inventory reports

Additionally, numerous facilities in the United States and abroad (including the largest holder of marine mammals in the United States; SeaWorld and its subsidiaries) have not complied with the conditions of 16 USC § 1374 Sec 104 (c) (10) by failing to provide the inventory data required to maintain previously issued permits and should immediately be excluded from any future permits until the requirements set forth above have been satisfied.

The rationale for these requests is such that it is not reasonable to approve, grant, or maintain permits for facilities that are not in compliance with the requirements of the MMPA (16 USC § 1374 Sec 104) and do not meet professionally recognized standards of the public display community or meet the minimum acceptable standards of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) 7 USC 2131 for the animals in their possession. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS) maintains oversight and permitting for facilities pursuant to AWA regulations and AWA compliance is additionally used as a basis by which the NMFS issues permits for the capture, import, export, and transfer of marine mammals.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Serice (APHIS) Overview:

“For more than 40 years, Congress has entrusted APHIS with the stewardship of animals covered under the Animal Welfare and Horse Protection Acts. APHIS continues to uphold that trust, giving protection to millions of animals each year, nationwide.

APHIS provides leadership for determining standards of humane care and treatment of animals. APHIS implements those standards and achieves compliance through inspection, education, cooperative efforts, and enforcement.”

The data contained in this MMIR Deficiency Report clearly demonstrates that the requirements of the AWA and MMPA cannot be satisfactorily confirmed without knowledge and verification of historical records, the care and status of presently and previously held animals, and compliance with current and past regulations.

Click here to open/view/download the complete Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) (113 pgs) in PDF format.

Marine Mammal Protection Act

In 1994 the MMPA was overhauled, incorporating numerous changes that stripped away much of the independent oversight from U.S. government regulatory agencies. This effectively created a self-governing industry in which the data requirements and transparency of marine mammal care at public display facilities is now essentially controlled by the multibillion-dollar entertainment facilities that house these animals. It is further hoped that through this report, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. House of Representatives, the Committee on Natural Resources and the Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs will recognize the need to once again overhaul the MMPA, the AWA and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to return them to the status for which they were created and intended: for the care, safety, and protection of our precious marine life.

It is anticipated that the governing bodies of the MMPA will take whatever actions are necessary to address and correct the shortcomings in marine mammal inventory management, implement the aforementioned restrictions on permit issuance, and actively cooperate and participate in bringing about the changes that are required in our laws and regulations to ensure the well-being of all of our marine mammals and wildlife.

The Orca Project would like to thank those who ARE actively working on behalf of these magnificent beings.

What You can do to help:

Click HERE to see how you can help bring about the changes that are required in marine mammal inventory management and the associated animal welfare laws and regulations. Contains contact info and a sample letter that you can send to all of the governing members of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.


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