Tag: Vancouver Aquarium

Instagram John and the Twitter of Doom

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A warning for fans of John Hargrove: This is not a touchy, feely appreciation of Mr. Hargrove. It examines statements made by the animal rights activist counter to his claimed cause. All of his statements come directly from his social media accounts.

A warning for SeaWorld and marine life supporters: This post will paint individuals you are opposed to in a positive light. This is not an endorsement, but rather a matter of fact – leading animal activists are often among the first to be contacted by government agencies to assist with rescues.

A note about racism: Two paragraphs down, I will be quoting Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. This is not an endorsement of the ideology in any way. My grandparents’ cousins, uncles, and aunts were all killed during the Holocaust and I do not take racism of any kind lightly. The quote is being used because it perfectly exemplifies a concern of mine not related to the actions of the Nazi party. In this post, I will not be addressing claims of racism with regards to Mr. Hargrove. The introduction of the video wherein Mr. Hargrove uses a racist term was an act of deflection by SeaWorld from the publication of his book, rather than an act of defense against its contents. I have addressed this matter elsewhere on this blog and do not feel it pertinent to the immediate matters at hand and, thus, will not be revisiting it.

A note on orca sanctuaries: In December 2017, I wrote a blog post on why building a whale sanctuary in the Pacific Northwest was a bad idea. A number of people, including some key members of the Whale Sanctuary Project’s board, construed this to be a statement against the construction of a whale sanctuary altogether. That was never the intent, nor ever mentioned in the piece, which I continue to stand by, especially after the incident involving a fuel barge this past July in West Vancouver.

Since I get asked by some, while others just assume, here’s my personal stance on sanctuaries: I am strongly supportive of any facility that provides superior care and space for any animal. Where I become critical is when political agendas override the animals’ needs, and I have concerns that with apex animals such as elephants and orcas, it may be a case of, as Joseph Goebbels stated: ““He who controls the medium controls the message. He who controls the message controls the masses.” In this case, the species at hand is the medium.

For one such species, orcas, a number of populations are dying out. If you are currently in college, chances are that the AT1 Alaskan transient pod will be extinct within your lifetime. The pod is now devoid of females as a result of one of the largest marine ecological disasters in US history.

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If you’re currently in college, there’s a very good chance that during your children’s or your grandchildren’s’ lifetimes, the J, K, and L pods of the Southern Resident population will also die out.

We know the earliest capture for exhibition from the Southern Resident population took place in British Columbia in 1964, when Moby Doll was harpooned and then displayed by the Vancouver Aquarium. By comparing hydrophone recordings taken at the sea pen of Moby Doll with the distinct calls of the Southern and Northern Resident pods, Canadian cetacean researcher John Ford determined that this first capture came from the Southern Resident J pod. Over the next decade, J pod would lose roughly 1/3 of its population to capture for public exhibition.

According to an EPA study of the Salish Sea, 66 whales were counted during the first comprehensive orca survey of the Southern Residents in 1973. By 1995, that number rose to 98. It has decreased again – now at 75 (including Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium, listed under the ESA with the rest of the group) at the time of this writing.

It’s easy to blame SeaWorld and the rest of the marine life parks for the current situation facing the Southern Residents, but that’s one small part of a bigger equation. The Salish Sea, where the whales live, is an unhealthy environment – the result of poor management by a number of Federal, State, Tribal, and local agencies over decades. This is the next great ecological disaster on the level of Yellowstone and the Everglades.

According to the EPA’s “Health of the the Salish Sea” report, between 1984 and 2010, the chinook salmon (food for the orcas) population decreased by 60%; between 2008 and 2011, 23 new species indigenous to the Salish Sea were added to the Endangered Species list; marine dissolved oxygen is showing a long term decline in the waters of Puget Sound and in the deeper waters of Georgia Strait – this results in less oxygen available for marine life; 10 of 17 rivers surveyed that feed into the Salish Sea have shown decreased water flow during summer, impacting mineral deposits into the ocean needed for life.

And there’s the dam issue – caught up in a bureaucratic whirlwind. Which raises the question – if a breeding generation of young orcas had not been taken away, would the Southern Residents be in the predicament they are now?

Likely, without proper ecological management, a larger population would create a greater problem as we would now have more individuals vying for the same diminished amount of food.

Which is why NOAA decided to do something about it, bringing together experts from around the world to help and keep an ailing Southern Resident, J50, alive. And yes, that included veterinarians from SeaWorld and the Vancouver Aquarium.

NOAA convened two sessions to discuss the rescue efforts, one at Friday Harbor and the other in Seattle. With J50 being declared deceased, these were turned into public comment sessions, both of which (especially the Seattle one) quickly turned into SeaWorld hate sessions.

There is nothing wrong with exhibiting disgust at a company and asking it be removed from the partnership group due to its past actions, but throughout the sessions and through social media, a number of conspiracies came to light, none of which were presented with undeniable evidence. Among the most popular:

  • SeaWorld has paid off NOAA to allow them to capture J50 and keep her permanently at a SeaWorld park.
  • SeaWorld has paid off NOAA to jeopardize the rescue plan (IMHO, a very poor PR move on SeaWorld’s part, were it true)
  • SeaWorld has paid off NOAA and is currently running the rescue operation.

While it’s great to vent, the reality of the situation is that we should be looking at this as a post-SeaWorld issue. As Pete Bethune pointed out from the microphone in Seattle, this is really a matter of poor ecological management. The whales are a symptom of a sick ecosystem. One of my favorite conservation programs in the world was based on this principle. The SeaDoc Society, which was also a partner in the effort to rescue J50, was developed by the University of California, Davis Veterinary School to monitor and treat the Salish Sea as one large biological entity.

Whether SeaWorld is involved or not shouldn’t matter unless somebody has definitive proof of malfeasance. As hundreds cried foul, few noticed or mentioned one member of the rescue team who can be seen over the NOAA employee’s shoulder in the very beginning of this video stream:

So yeah, Ingrid Visser was out on the rescue boats. But it doesn’t matter. And yeah, Jeff Foster was out on the rescue boats. But it doesn’t matter. And yeah, NOAA announced at both sessions that the plan if they had to capture the whale was to take it to a Fisheries lab that had both a hard pool and a sea pen and that once rehabilitated or showing signs it could not be, it would be returned to its pod – that they had no plans to permanently capture her. But it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because SeaWorld was there too.

So where does this rumor come from that SeaWorld was paying off NOAA?

Most likely, a Sept. 12 piece in the Seattle Times, where former Washington Secretary of State Ralph Munro is quoted as saying, “What the heck is NOAA doing, accepting money from Sea World over the past few years? Was that ever told to the public?”

In the paragraph prior to his statement is a link to a press release from the National Fish and Wildlife Federation showing 2017 grants for research on wild orcas and orca conservation issued by NFWF and funded by a partnership of SeaWorld, Shell, and the US Fish & Wildlife Service. It’s impossible to tell without requesting an audit what amount specifically came from SeaWorld. Of the grants and matching funds, $560,631.00 went to two NOAA studies. This is out of a total of $2.18 million for eight overall programs.

And that is how SeaWorld bought NOAA.

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“He deliberately left you your boat because he wants to fight you alone on the sea.”

— Rachel Bedford (Charlotte Rampling) “Orca” 1977

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Crackin McCracklins is right! And, to add water to fire, the Whale Sanctuary Project cannot successfully acquire and transfer SeaWorld’s whales without the cooperation of SeaWorld.

So, two things are either happening here. Either Mr. Hargrove is aware of some deal going on between the Whale Sanctuary Project and SeaWorld, or, more likely, he’s typing faster than his brain can compute logical connections.

Here’s a good example of how that works.

I’m not an animal rights activist, but I know two important precepts of animal rights:

  1. It is based on the ideals of human rights and the two are very intertwined.
  2. If you make a name for yourself arguing against mother whales being separated from their calves, you can’t ignore the same thing happening to human beings in your country (unless you happen to be an avid Trump supporter, which Mr. Hargrove emphatically is).

Thus, on the Fourth of July, as a lone human rights activist scaled the Statue of Liberty to protest the Trump Administration’s separation of migrant children from their parents, we got this:

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I’ve spoken with a number of full time animal rights activists in the aftermath of the Whale Sanctuary Project tweets. Carly Ferguson, President of Canada’s Ontario Captive Animal Watch gave similar sentiments to the others I spoke with when she said, “We’re very disappointed. Such messages are counterproductive to the future welfare of captive animals.”

Regarding his book, his appearance in Blackfish, his legislative testimony, and time as an expert witness for OSHA, Cal/OSHA and PETA (I’m inclined to mash the three into a superclient of his I’ll call POSH), he’s served a purpose for a movement. But maybe it’s time for that movement to move on. I’ve previously addressed Mr. Hargrove (yes, that’s him I’m referring to) in this piece on Barnum. David Neiwart’s excellent piece on why you can’t defend orcas and Donald Trump simultaneously is included within.

I should point out that Mr. Hargrove has blocked me from social media for some time. And that’s fine, that’s his right. But that hasn’t kept others from sending me tweets and posts over the years. Some, like the above, I include here because they were posted publicly. Others, such as Mr. Hargrove’s debate with a follower over Trump and the merits of the Holocaust, were posted under a privacy setting and I have made the decision to not make those discussions public.

For the Whale Sanctuary Project, losing Mr. Hargrove’s endorsement can be a mixed bag. When I review his social media posts, interviews and book, I see a pattern developing of an individual who not only is out to pay retribution to his former employer, but as an addict to captive orcas, rarely speaks beyond “his” whales at SeaWorld, Marineland, and Loro Parque (and Lolita, for whom he was paid $90 an hour to speak) – a man who does not understand that in the intrinsically connected world of the whales, saving the wild ones is just as important. A man, who by my interpretation of his tweets, would rather a whale die in the wild than have SeaWorld involved.

On the other hand, Mr. Hargrove has a lot of followers. Perhaps you’re one. Many of these followers believe every word he expunges.

So now the conspiracy is out there – The Whale Sanctuary Project is in cahoots with SeaWorld.

“We’ve all become great admirers of your work around here, but all good things must come to an end.”

— Randolph Johnson (August Schellenberg), “Free Willy” 1993

The Other Side of the News marine life park edition part three: The secret deal between Marineland of Canada and the Chinese government

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At the beginning of July, a strange rumor started circulating on social media: In the shadow of the death and funeral of its owner, John Holer, Marineland of Canada, near Niagara Falls, had secretly shipped two of its beluga whales to China. Some of the posts and tweets stated that the sale and transfer was not a rumor, but a fact.

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The social media posts stemmed from a July 3 report in the Chinese government-controlled media. It reads, and this is a rough translation:

“A few days ago, Guiyang Customs escorted two beluga whales to the remote animal world isolation animal quarantine site in Longchuan, Hubei Province, and began a 45-day quarantine.

“It is reported that the beluga whales came from Canada, entered the Beijing Capital International Airport, and then transferred to Guiyang, and Guiyang Customs sent a staff to Beijing to carry out the whole process of quarantine supervision. Due to the long transportation time and the hot weather along the way, in order to ensure the safety of beluga whales, the customs officers responsible for quarantine quarantine and disinfect the contact personnel, quarantine sites and shipping vehicles, carry out full video surveillance of the unloading process, and package the whales. The objects and bedding are treated harmlessly. After 46 hours of long journey, after ensuring that the beluga whale is in good health and there is no trauma on the body surface, the beluga whale is safely placed in the isolation culture pond.

“In order to welcome the beluga whales, Guiyang Customs set up a working group for the quarantine supervision of the incoming beluga whales, organized professional and technical personnel to carry out quarantine supervision, arranged special personnel to follow up the disinfection vehicle pass, and implemented the site permit in advance, and went to the enterprise to isolate The quarantine-related system conducts policy announcements and prepares adequately.

“The white whale mammal is a national secondary protected animal because it likes to “sing” and is also called “sea canary”. The establishment of white whales in Guizhou will further enrich Guizhou’s species resources and add vitality to Guizhou’s tourism”

SCENARIO 1

The article clearly stated that “It is reported that the beluga whales came from Canada…” Since there’s only one facility in Canada that houses belugas – Marineland – there was no question where they could have come from. The easiest way to verify this would be to ask the park itself. After an email inquiry wasn’t responded to, I called the park directly, only to be thwarted by former Marineland trainer turned anti-Marineland activist Phil Demers.

Now, I’m not trying to be a dick, but this is what really happened. Demers has undertaken the practice of posting on social media everytime he hears about a possible injury, illness, or death of an animal at Marineland. As a result, his followers deluge Marineland with calls to inquire about the condition of that particular animal. And the park operator hangs up on them. You can actually find videos online of people filming themselves calling Marineland and being hung up on.

About 24 hours before I called Marineland, Demers hit twitter.

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So I called Marineland. I gave my name, gave the names of a few mainstream publications I write for, asked to speak to a media representative about the two belugas in China reported to be from Canada, and was promptly hung up on.

On my second call, I was told by the receptionist, “Tell your buddy Demers we record all his lies.” Then she hung up again.

And thus began an investigation involving eight attractions and tourism industry colleagues in the United States, Canada, Russia, and China.

The first thing we did was to contact Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada, the two agencies that would issue export permits for belugas. Neither had, which was confirmed by a conversation with an animal rights advocacy group conducting its own investigation. At that point, we knew it wasn’t Marineland.

SCENARIO 2

The line in the report that the beluga whales came from Canada was our only clue. We could rule out potential capture by First Nations or other parties due to the lack of export permit.

Taking a different approach, we kept in mind that when interpreting Chinese, words or groups of words can have different meanings.

Could this mean that the belugas originated in Canada, but were exported from a different country? This would include any belugas originating at either Marineland or Vancouver Aquarium and their offspring. We also looked into L’Oceanografic in Valencia, Spain, which is managed by the Vancouver Aqurium and houses a mating pair of beluga and their calf.

When we concluded our inquiries, all American and Spanish belugas were accounted for, so we ruled out this scenario.

SCENARIO 3

Then came a bombshell.

A government tourism analyst in Beijing told us that the photo op and article were staged. At his request, we are sharing his statements here strictly on grounds that we maintain his anonymity due to his position within the government.

Government staged propaganda is common in China to promote goodwill towards projects or opportunities. And a lot of it is fake. For example, even before Shanghai Disneyland opened, a number of provincial and municipal leaders staged press conferences surrounded by local teens wearing knockoff Disney costumes, where they announced that Disney had entered talks with them to open the next Disneyland in China. Far from the truth, but the ultimate goal was to build up corporate investment, particularly from overseas investors, in those regions.

So why stage a photo op of what appears to be a happy beluga whale flirting with customs officers? (It looks authentic. Not only are those actual customs outfits, but that’s an actual facility that we have photos of from a few years back, although this one was a photo we haven’t seen before).

According to the analyst, the news story was designed to counter two recent stories about belugas that the government deems negative.

The first involved a trainer applying lipstick to a beluga at a Dalian aquarium.

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The second involved the news that Merlin Entertainments would be moving its two belugas from Shanghai to a sanctuary in Iceland. According to the analyst, “The government is against this. The whales have become a vital part of economic development throughout the country. When a new aquarium opens, Chinese people expect to see the whales. The operation is often considered a disappointment if they are not there.”

One major factor that turned around government sentiments for Merlin’s export of the whales was a 2015 commitment by the company to increase development of attractions, such as Madame Tussauds and Sea Life, and build LEGOLAND theme parks throughout the country. However, although the sanctuary announcement was major news in Hong Kong and Taiwan, its coverage in Mainland China’s mainstream media was minimized.

Just how important are whales and dolphins to China’s economy?

My associate Michael Giskin, founder of China Orca News, has compiled this list, which is accurate as of the time of this post. Keep in mind while you’re reading this that we have estimated that on average, one new facility with marine mammals is opening in Mainland China every single month.

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SCENARIO 4:

This is the real story about the beluga whales that were shipped from Canada.

They were not from Canada.

They did not originate with Canadian owners.

They were not part of a publicity stunt.

On June 8, the two belugas departed Russia

From June 9 to about July 31, the belugas were at an unknown location or locations while the 45-day quarantine period began

Around July 1, the two belugas arrived at Colorful Guizhou City Polar Ocean World

On July 3, Chinese media reported on the arrival of the belugas, reporting erroneously that they were from Canada.

On July 23, the 45-day quarantine period was completed as one of the two belugas departed Colorful Guizhou City Polar Ocean World

On July 25, one of the two belugas arrived at Ganzhou Polar Ocean World

We know that  the transferred beluga is female with a given age of around eight years old. Often a year or two might be fudged on the age to make it appear younger. As the Russian government increases its crackdown on illegal captures, which is driven more by who’s a friend of Putin rather than actual animal welfare concerns, documentation and media reports within Russia on marine mammal export to China become harder and harder to find. A seven to nine year old beluga could have come from either a facility or a live capture – although much younger whales are generally preferred for capture.

We have suspicions that these two may have originated at the Utrish Marine Station, part of the collection of 18 belugas held for the Georgia Aquarium. There were two females, one each from the 2010 and 2011 captures, that would currently be in that age range. Keep in mind though, that right now,  my statement on the whales coming from the Georgia Aquarium collection is purely speculation and we will keep investigating. If you decide to pass it along as fact on social media, that’s all on you.

As for the whales being reported as having come from Canada, Michael has an interesting theory – someone told the reporter that wild belugas can be found in Russia and Canada and he got confused.

A simple mistake that set off a storm.

Special thanks to Michael Giskin, Annie Wong, and the entire research team.