Humane Killing of Marine Mammals

The Society for Marine Mammalogy is moving forward in engaging our membership on the issue of purposefully and humanely killing marine mammals. As you may know this is a complex and sensitive topic given the diversity of cultures and perspectives within our Society. To begin the conversation the Society has undertaken two activities.

  • Working Group
    The first is organizing a working group to use scientific expertise within the Society (physiology, behavior, veterinary medicine, etc.) to develop a list of considerations and best practices that should be taken into account whenever a marine mammal is deliberately killed. This group will summarize available information from the IWC, AVMA and other agencies, and offer new recommendations where appropriate. The Society’s Board feels that this is a reasonable first step that avoids the normative question of determining when it is ethical to kill marine mammals and when it is not. We believe that that the vast majority of our membership believes that, if a marine mammal is going to be killed, regardless of the reason, it should be done in the most humane way the situation allows. The group will develop a white paper and associated on-line resources over the next year and make these resources available to the Society and general public.
  • Special Sessions 
    The second activity was a special sessions on the humane killing of marine mammals held at the biennial conference in Dunedin, New Zealand Dec 9-13, 2013. The purpose of this panel discussions was NOT to attempt a consensus or agree on a Society position, but instead to educate members with regard to current scientific perspectives on these complex technical, ethical and cultural issues.

The special session had the following basic structure:

  1. an independent facilitator,
  2. introductory speaker(s) who outlined the relevant science, and
  3. an expert panel with the capacity to represent a diversity of viewpoints on the issue in answers to questions provided by the Society’s membership.

Members of the Society were invited to submit questions online via the Member Area of the website. The questions submitted are available below, for transparency’s sake. The working group organizing the session selected a set of the questions that encompass the aspects of the issue and the expert panel discussed them.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer facilitated the special session on the humane killing of marine mammals. Sir Geoffrey is a former Prime Minister of New Zealand and was the New Zealand delegate to the IWC for several years, experience that made him outstandingly well qualified for the role.

The panel consisted of 5 members

  • Dr. Nick Gales (Australian Antarctic Division)
  • Dr. Diana Reiss (Hunter College, CUNY)
  • Dr. Paul Jepson (Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London)
  • Dr. James Kirkwood (Universities Federation for Animal Welfare)

Society members were encouraged to submit questions related to the topic “Humane Killing of Marine Mammals.” President Helene Marsh, President-Elect Nick Gales, and the special session working group (Charles Littnan, Andy Read, David Johnston, Michelle Barbieri, Frances Gulland, and Randy Wells) chose the questions to be presented to the panel.

Below is a transcript of the panel discussion and all of the questions in the order they were submitted through the SMM website, the name of the submitter, identification of the questions submitted to the panel, and the questions that were covered in the presentations by Drs. Helene Marsh and Nick Gales.

The selected questions were submitted to the panel members the evening before the event. The special session working group is also considering soliciting some short responses for unasked questions as appropriate. We greatly appreciate those colleagues who took the time to submit their questions or comments or were able to attend the session. We encourage you to stay involved in the conversation and help develop ideas on how to progress on this and other issues facing our Society.


Proposed Question

Selected Questions and Presentation Order to Panel 

Peter Best What is the panel’s view on the use of explosives in euthanasia of stranded large whales, where a charge is placed appropriately and sandbagged to direct the blast downwards? In particular, can they provide any guidance as to types and quantities of the charges to use, and how these may relate to the species and size class involved? This question was not posed at this time but likely considered in efforts of upcoming working group.
Naomi Rose Are there circumstances where, even if the killing of animals was humane (“humane” by whatever consensus definition), using data from such animals in research would/should be considered unethical by scientists?
Aristide Kamla Takoukam What are the main motivations or incentives behind Humane Marine Mammal Killing? Touched on in multiple responses and in introductory remarks.
Aristide Kamla Takoukam Will minimum requirement procedures or equipments for Humane Marine Mammal Killing be affordable, adaptable or applicable across cultures or countries?
suzanne arnold It would appear impossible to isolate a definition of humane killing of non human species unless a human was subjected to the same methods. Isn’t it time to find a different definition which includes the social and psychological impacts of killing marine mammals ? Are accompanying animals traumatised ? What are the effects on a family group ? Parts of this question were touched on in remarks by panelists.
Courtney Vail Over 250 marine mammal scientists have signed a statement circulated informally at previous Biennial meetings condemning the dolphin drive hunts. This perhaps represents just a fraction of those members that would sign such a statement if they were provided the opportunity to express their support for this, and similar, issues involving marine mammals. Why does the Society steer away from taking a position on controversial policy issues, like the dolphin drive hunts specifically, when these issues maintain a high profile in the public domain, requiring Society engagement in responsible advocacy as the expert body for marine mammal science?***SMM ETHICS COMMITTEE NOTE*** This question was slightly modified for presentation to the panel. The version asked at the special session was: Over 250 marine mammal scientists have signed a statement circulated informally at previous Biennial meetings condemning the dolphin drive hunts. Historically the Society has steered away from taking a position on controversial marine mammal policy issues, like dolphin drive hunts, when these issues maintain a high profile in the public domain and should the Society engage in responsible advocacy as the expert body for marine mammal science? Questions #2
Naomi Rose It is difficult to ensure the humane killing of cetaceans because there is no reliable way to determine time to death. What are the implications of this for lethal research?
Mike Bossley Is it the scientific responsibility of the SMM, as the expert scientific body on marine mammals, to take a stronger and precautionary position on the welfare of marine mammals in research? If the SMM has collective expertise about marine mammal physiology, behavior, and cognition, does it not have the collective expertise to guide and advocate for improved animal welfare policy in international forums and in light of different cultural practices and geographical boundaries? Similar to Question #2 posed to panel and touched on in several panelists responses.
Susan Millward There have been various discussions within the IWC’s Whale Killing Methods and Associated Welfare Issues workshop, particularly during the mid-2000s, on the appropriateness of certain weaponry as killing tools. Given the vastly differing sizes among great whales’ sexes and species, is it possible to consistently guarantee a humane kill (even if such could be defined and in ideal circumstances) using the same weaponry on animals of different sizes? Combined with question below and presented as Question #3
Susan Millward Data from nations conducting aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW) of large whales show longer times to death and higher struck and lost rates in ASW than commercial whaling operations. This may be because they use equipment (including size and power of weapons) or techniques (including shot placement) that are less likely to result in instantaneous insensibility or death. In some cases this may be a rational operational decision to avoid losing a struck whale before it is secured or to promote hunter safety. Are there any other tools, techniques, or training that could be provided to balance operational and welfare concerns so that aboriginal whalers reduce times to death and struck and lost rates but also improve the efficiency, safety and humaneness of their hunts?***SMM ETHICS COMMITTEE NOTE*** This question was modified slightly for brevity and was presented as: Given the vastly differing sizes among great whales’ sexes and species, is it possible to consistently guarantee a humane kill using the same weaponry on animals of different sizes? Data from nations conducting aboriginal subsistence whaling of large whales show longer times to death and higher struck and lost rates than commercial whaling operations. Are there any other tools, techniques, or training that could be provided to balance operational and welfare concerns so that aboriginal whalers reduce times to death and struck and lost rates but also improve the efficiency, safety and humaneness of their hunts? Combined with question below and presented as Question #3
Philippa Brakes Society members have increasingly raised concerns about animal welfare issues associated with lethal takes of marine mammals, resulting for example, in this panel discussion. Considering wider societal trends against invasive and lethal research, such as replacing the use of primates in research, is it time to revisit the Society’s lethal research policies and guidelines and review them in light of emergent knowledge? Question #5
Mark Peter Simmonds Are there circumstances when it is better not to intervene to try to help help a stranded of otherwise stricken cetacean and, if this is the case, what are those circumstances?
Liz Slooten The term “humane killing” implies that the marine mammal being killed is ill or otherwise in distress, and killing it is more humane than letting it live. Is this the context of the panel discussion? Touched on by panelists in responses to Question #1
Courtney Vail Because the protection of welfare is a valid concern embodied throughout the Society’s research guidelines (e.g. collection, restraint, and sampling), why did the Presidential letters to Japan addressing small cetacean hunts only address sustainability concerns? Welfare science is not culturally discriminatory, so why does the Society selectively apply its welfare and ethical policies in regards to marine mammal conservation or management issues? Touched on in presentations and in responses to Question #2
Liz Slooten Does the Society have the expertise to take a precautionary position on minimizing the risk of injury and death for marine mammals in our research programs? Touched on in several panelists responses.
Liz Slooten In terms of veterinary criteria, is it fair to say that unless a marine mammal is sitting on a hard surface (e.g. a beach) it is difficult if not impossible to kill it humanely?
Diana Reiss Question 1: Is it not the scientific responsibility of our international professional society, the SMM, with our collective international expertise on marine mammal biology, physiology, behavior, cognition and communication, to voice a stronger and cautionary position regarding the inhumane killing of dolphins and small whales in the drive hunts in Taiji, Japan? And – a related question, should we not express concerns and advocate for improved animal welfare policy in international forums?2. Is it appropriate to use the term “humane killing” when intentionally killing a cetacean in good health? Similar to Question #2 presented to panel. 

Question #1

Christina Lockyer Dear Special Session WG members, as a past president of the SMM and a long term founding member, I discussed the possibility of such a session 2 years ago at the past presidents breakfast in Tampa. I was initially quite enthusiastic for holding such a session. At that time I proposed that NAMMCO should be consulted in the planning process because this organisation has over the last many years undertaken extensive work on killing of marine mammals and its efficiency and humaneness, and held several workshops to which external international experts have been invited with the outcome of published reports – see However, since that time 2 years ago, I have not been contacted even a single time about its planning or content, and the first I heard of the “event” was barely a week ago. I am extremely disappointed, and while some of the panel appear competent and hold my respect, I do not consider Sir Geoffrey Palmer an appropriate facilitator for the panel. Where are the real experts? I would appreciate my concerns being announced at the session, and in the meantime receiving some kind of explanation for why I have never been contacted for advice. Aspects of this were touched on in the opening and closing remarks of the workshop. Some of this work was addressed in panelist responses.

Scientific studies of captive and free-living killer whales

This panel was held on 12 December, 2013 in Dunedin, New Zealand during the Society’s 20th Biennial Conference.

This is a topic of significant interest to the public and within the scientific community. The goals of this session were: 1) To provide an overview of scientific data collected from free-ranging and captive killer whales; and 2) To offer an opportunity for experts to discuss comparative aspects of killer whale biology in these two environments and the implications thereof.

The panel consisted of 6 members

  • Dr. Doug DeMaster (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration)
  • Dr. Dave Duffus (University of Victoria, British Columbia)
  • Dr. Robin Baird (Cascadia Research)
  • Dr. Mark Orams (Auckland University of Technology)
  • Dr. Judy St. Leger (Sea World Parks and Entertainment)
  • Dr. Naomi Rose (Animal Welfare Institute)

The facilitator was the Chair of the Society’s Committee of Scientific Advisors, Dr. Doug Wartzok.

Dr. DeMaster gave a short presentation setting the stage and each participant was then given approximately two minutes to make introductory remarks, followed by questions and discussion.Conference attendants and society members submitted questions online. The working group that organized the session (Doug Wartzok, Helene Marsh, Nick Gales and Naomi Rose) then selected a set of questions from the submissions that encompassed salient, scientific aspects of the issue. The panelists had advance notice of the questions and the discussion was strongly moderated to ensure concentration on matters within the purview of the Society.

The following questions were submitted by conference attendants prior to the conference:

Registrant’s Name Suggested Question Selected Questions and Presentation Order to Panel
Andrea Cosentino How do survivorship rates compare between captive and wild orcas? Covered in Introductory Presentation
Kessina Lee How many of the killer whales currently in oceanaria and aquaria in the United States were born in captivity and how many generations do they represent? Covered in Introductory Presentation
Liz Slooten What is the average survival rate and longevity for orca in captivity as compared with in the wild? Covered in Introductory Presentation
Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho Scientifically, can any distinction be made between wild caught and captive born orcas in regard to, for example, their susceptibility to disease in captivity, what diseases they may be more susceptible to contracting, whether there are gender differences as to disease susceptibility, their ability to adapt to captivity, what percentage die within the first months of confinement, whether logging behavior (hours floating motionless) affect their health, the frequency or type of communications with other captive orcas, and their longevity? Covered in Introductory Presentation
Philippa Brakes What are the benefits and contributions of the research conducted on captive killer whales to conservation of killer whales in the wild? Question 1
Courtney Vail What are the top three scientific discoveries the panel feel have been made with regard to our scientific understanding of killer whales in the wild and in captivity? Question 2
Andy Foote Relatively few scientists studying free-ranging killer whales have also worked on captive killer whales, possibly due to ethical concerns. Does the panel think that researchers working with free-ranging killer whales could have more of a role in applying that experience with wild killer whale populations to improve conditions for captive killer whales, and can they think of any specific examples? Question 3
Erich Hoyt Regarding the recent captures of 7 killer whales in the Okhotsk Sea, should the SMM provide its expertise to the Fisheries in Russia on the size of the quota for 2014 and future years, and comment on the failure to evaluate separately the management status of the two known ecotypes of Russian Far East killer whales; should the population, breeding unit size, and other factors of the 2 ecotypes be considered before undertaking captures? Question 4
James Powell Ocean noise is a real concern for many cetacean species. Anthropogenic events have been concerns for killer whale strandings. What efforts are being made to document the environmental noise exposure for free ranging animals and to reduce ocean noise in the habitats of killer whales? Can testing be performed on captive killer whales that determines the hearing range for this species and if so what research has to date been conducted in this arena? Question 5
Suzanne Arnold What protocols and /or tests are carried out to determine stress levels in captive killer whales as compared with stress levels in free ranging animals ? Question 6
Deborah A. Duffield Having killer whales in zoological facilities has afforded millions of people the opportunity to see and appreciate this species and their ocean habitat. Many of my students have pursued the field of marine biology because of early experiences at facilities like SeaWorld. Not only do these animals educate the public, but they provide access to living killer whales in ways that are not possible with their free ranging counterparts especially as it relates to physiology, animal health and reproductive biology. Can you suggest areas of research where these highly motivated students can make the greatest contributions if they are interested in comparative studies of these types to advance our knowledge of biology of this species and other cetaceans? Question 7
Putu Liza Mustika What does the panel consider to be the appropriate balance between the scientific effort relevant to captive killer whales and that relevant to reducing the risk of extinction of the marine mammals listed as threatened by IUCN? Question 8
Mark Peter Simmonds Are the same diseases seen in wild and captive orcas? Question 9
Andrea Cosentino What parameters can be used to determine mental health and stress levels in captive and wild killer whales? What behaviours are a direct consequence of being captive?
Andrea Cosentino Why do captive breeding programs for killer whales include females younger than those that first reproduce successfully in the wild? (Question developed in collaboration with Gabriela Bellazzi, WEF Argentina)
Andrea Cosentino Why females and calves separated at such young ages? What are the mental and physical health consequences for both the calves and the mothers? What are the decisions based on? (Question developed in collaboration with Gabriela Bellazzi, WEF Argentina)
Andrea Cosentino Is there any conservation value to breeding hybrids, such as between Kshamenk (from Mundo Marino, in Argentina) and whales at SeaWorld? Might not outbreeding depression occur in the offspring?
Courtney Vail Orcas do not live in their natural social structures in captivity. This may create social stress resulting in agonistic behavior. A common procedure is to separate individuals. However, would you recommend or not, the use of psychological active treatments like the application of valium or hormones and are you aware of such treatments?
Courtney Vail Should killer whales continue to be captured from the wild to further our scientific understanding of them?It is unlikely that captive killer whales can be released in the wild and have a normal social life, but can we imagine to move them in sea enclosure with a decent size so that they can learn to live in a natural environnement ? It seems to work pretty well for dolphins (in Eilat in Israel).Can the society impose some guidelines to aquatic parks to have such sea enclosures and stop keeping killer whales (or any large marine mammals) in tanks?Thank you for organising such discussion
Isabelle Charrier What are all of the factors you would consider when determining whether a captive animal would be able to survive life again in the wild?Do you think it would be possible for a captive born killer whale to ever survive independently in the wild?
Katherina Audley Do you think Lolita would survive in the wild if released and if so, what would your rehabilitation plan be for her?
Liz Slooten I’ve heard that Tilikum is the father of all or most of the captive born orca. Is this true?
Margie Morrice How do we better integrate data from free-ranging killer whales across research groups and ocean regions where they are expected to range, particularly with respect to group connectivity and health.
Mike Bossley Can orca captivity be justified, given the documented health and welfare implications?
Oliver Manlik Besides the potential risk to the trainers, what makes the captivity of Orcas different from captivity of other cetaceans, e.g. bottlenose dolphins?
Philippa Brakes There are currently 52 orcas in captivity globally including 22 in the US. Recently the Georgia Aquarium, on behalf of SeaWorld and other US aquariums, claimed in its application for a permit to import 18 wild caught beluga whales that, based on a genetic analysis, 18 wild caught whales were needed to supplement the existing 36 animals currently in captivity in the US in order to create a captive population that is “self-sustaining” and to “reduce the demand for wild-caught beluga whales for public display.” In light of this information, has there been an analysis done of the genetic diversity of orcas in captivity, what was the result of that analysis, and are there presently sufficient numbers of orcas in captivity to eliminate the need for any future wild captures?
Shawn Noren It is difficult to pose a question without first hearing the arguments of the panel. Therefore, I am offering a point of discussion. There is a lot of debate about whether or not killer whales (or other cetaceans) should be maintained in captivity. As is evident in the movie “Blackfish”. When considering what side of the argument you are on, I challenge the panel to consider the physiological data that has been collected on captive marine mammals that would not have otherwise been possible. Information that has allowed us to look at the effects of sound, to construct bioenergetics models for marine mammals, and to examine the diving physiology of these animals. All of these studies have provided valuable data that could not have been collected on wild animals. Yet these data have been critical in shaping policy decisions regarding wild marine mammal interactions with Navy sonar testing, commercial fisheries, and eco-tourism. Admittedly, Killer whales that are in captivity should be more readily available for scientific studies, that are humane and relatively non-invasive. Nonetheless, we should not release captive killer whales back into the wild. That approach was used with Free Willy (Keiko), and he ultimately died of starvation.
Shawn Noren I would like to add to my previous comment. I want to clarify that I am not in favor of extracting additional killer whales from the wild, rather I think we should learn from the ones that already reside in aquaria.
Suzanne Arnold The killer whale is a major marine predator. As their primary ecological and behavioral role is no longer possible in captivity, how are these needs addressed and what impacts are there on denying these intrinsic behaviors?