From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2000:

FRANKFURT, Germany– – Lufthansa, the national airline of Germany, on December 7 agreed under pressure from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to cease transporting wild-caught whales and dolphins to marine mammal parks.

“Sea Shepherd Europe asked Lufthansa to review its policy on the transport of wild animals and also contacted other major airlines after an incident in early November in which two dolphins––one a pregnant female–– died in a Lufthansa cargo plane. They were part of a shipment of one beluga whale and four dolphins being shipped from Russia to Argentina,” Sea Shepherd spokespersons Andrew Christie, Hartmut Seidich, and Kay Trenkman explained.

“Investigations by Sea Shepherd Brazil and Sea Shepherd Europe found that the five cetaceans were flown to Frankfurt by a Russian plane. They were reloaded into a Lufthansa plane after a veterinarian at the Frankfurt airport certified that they were fit for transport,” the Sea Shepherds added.

After announcing the breakthrough with Lufthansa, the Sea Shepherds almost immediately upstaged themselves with a series of bulletins describing their deployment of volunteers from five nations to aid marine life after oil tankers sank off France and Turkey.

The E r i k a, a 24-year-old tanker chartered by the French oil firm TotalFina but registered in Malta, broke up and sank in the Bay of Biscay off Brittany on December 12. En route from Rotterdam, The Netherlands, to Leghorn, Italy, it took an estimated 32,000 metric tons of refined heavy oil to the bottom, with relatively minor immediate spillage. Cold currents and pressure from the 400-foot depth were expected to either wash the oil farther out to sea or keep it in the wreckage.

Instead at least a third of it floated up to the surface and hit the Brittany coast on Christmas Day, killing from 85,000 to 170,000 sea birds––far more than were killed by the much larger Amoco Cadiz spill in 1978, which killed about 50,000 birds in the same vicinity. Desperate volunteers assembled by the French League for the Protection of Birds picked up more than 2,000 living birds and 6,000 dead birds within 24 hours.

Accepting an offer of help from the Royal SPCA, they packed 359 mired guillemots six to a box in boxes meant to hold three, and without stopping to give them primary treatment, rushed them to British treatment centers. Three-fourths of them died within 48 hours. The RSPCA blamed the French for not providing primary treatment; Philippe Dubois of the FLPB responded that the birds were sent to Britain in the first place because the French didn’t have enough help to treat them as fast as they were arriving.

TotalFina board chair Thierry Desmarest initially declared that his firm had no responsibility for the disaster, but then said he would donate a day of his own wages to the rescue effort after Greenpeace activists on Boxing Day dumped oil-soaked dead birds on the doorstep of his Paris office.

“Of even more concern to Sea Shepherd,” Hartmut Seidich said, “is an already endangered population of 30 gray seals who live and breed on the island of Belle Isle. This group is one of only two seal populations surviving between Spain and Sweden. Gray seals give birth in winter, and it is almost certain that there are newborns on the island.”

Seidich said the Sea Shepherds would transport oiled seals and birds to the Pieterburen Seal Rehabilitation Center in The Netherlands beginning on December 30.

“We are negotiating with Air France to fly in wildlife oil disaster experts from the Tri-State Bird Rescue Center in Delaware and the International Bird Research and Rescue Center in San Francisco,” added Christie.

As those operations got underway, the Russian tanker Volgoneft 248 went down in the Maramara Sea off Istanbul, Turkey, spilling at least 900 tons of the 4,300 tons of oil aboard. Sea Shepherd volunteer Erkan Sevdiren rushed to the scene.

Keiko struggles on

Though preoccupied by the oil spills, the Sea Shepherds seemed to be almost the only animal protection group to make headway against resurging international interest in capturing marine mammals for exhibition.

Seven years after the first of the Free Willy! films made marine mammal captivity a global cause celebre, the orca star of the trilogy, Keiko, is reportedly within weeks of finally taking his first swim outside of a tank or a sea pen since his capture in 1981. Weather permitting, he is to be allowed to explore a netted-off fjiord near Klettsvik, Iceland, beginning the next-to-last stage of his five-year rehabilitation for return to the wild.

The last stage will be learning to feed himself. Trainers began trying to teach him to catch and eat live fish during his 32 months at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, 1996- 1998, but he never has gotten the idea.

Captured in Icelandic waters, Keiko was sold to Marineland of Canada, at Niagara Falls, Ontario, which resold him to El Reino Aventura in Mexico City, the facility where much of the first Free Willy! film was made. Still in the animal brokerage business, Marineland of Canada in November circumvented the 1992 Canadian ban on live beluga whale captures by importing nine belugas from Russia. As the ban applied only to belugas in Canadian waters, Marineland was at liberty to import.

The belugas arrived in good health, said Marineland owner John Holer. He said he didn’t think they were the same belugas who were roughly netted in a recent video by a Russian TV reporter, released to Canadian media on December 15 by Zoocheck Canada.

They were the first wild-caught belugas to join the U.S.-and-Canadian captive population since two were captured in Canadian waters for the John Shedd Aquarium in Chicago during August 1992. Those two died soon afterward from accidental overdoses of deworming medicine.

Another of the Shedd’s wild-caught belugas, Immiayuk, 14, died of an unidentified infection on December 26, 1999. She was taken out of Hudson Bay in 1989. Her five-month-old calf, nearly weaned, is expected to survive.

New captures

Six bottlenose dolphins were captured for sale to aquariums, 69 were hacked to death, and about 100 were released on October 13, 1999, after fishers drove a pod into Futo harbor on the Izu peninsula of Japan. It was reportedly the first such “drive fishery” there since 1996. Activists have alleged that the “drive fisheries” continue because of the sale value of captive dolphins. The usual rationale expressed by participants, however, is that the dolphins eat too many fish.

Live captures are to resume soon after a long hiatus in South African waters, as the South African Department of Environmental Affairs on November 26 authorized the Bayworld Port Elizabeth Oceanarium to add a wild breeding group of three to four bottlenosed dolphins to the present resident population of one elderly female and her adult son. The dolphins will be captured from the wild, Bayworld director Sylvia Van Zyl said, because capturing the whole group is expected to cost less than purchasing and importing even one already captive dolphin.

The U.S. dolphin surplus of the mid- 1990s, which led to several high-profile attempts at rehabilitation for release, has all but evaporated. The U.S. Navy dolphin program has regained some of the funding it lost in the early 1990s; attrition with no new captures has stabilized the captive population; and swim-with-dolphins facilities are a fastgrowth industry. The biggest swim-with facility yet, Discovery Cove, is to be opened by Sea World next summer in Orlando, Florida.

Ordinary exhibition demand is also up. Receiving three dolphins on November 23, rented from Marine Animal Productions of Gulfport, Mississippi, the Oklahoma City Zoo is to resume daily dolphin shows in March. Two of the previous leased pod of three dolphins died from pneumonia in October 1998.

The Virginia Marine Science Museum recently announced plans to add a six-dolphin tank to its facilities in Virginia Beach. This would make it the first U.S. facility to add a cetacean exhibit since the Oregon Coast Aquarium added the tank Keiko used during the first phase of his rehabilitation after removal from El Reino Aventura.

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