Tsunami of Chinese Marine Parks Drives Dolphins into Captivity

Tsunami of Chinese Marine Parks Drives Dolphins into Captivity
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

What you need to know

With the growth of the aquatic entertainment industry, trade in marine animals is gathering speed in China.

Dolphins, beluga whales, and many other majestic animals of the great blue belong in the oceans and seas, not in marine parks and aquariums to be ridden like surfboards or to perform acrobatic tricks like drugged lions and diggers. But that’s what is happening in cities along China’s east coast, and more and more animals are suffering from these practices.

For many years, Japan has been chastised internationally for an annual dolphin hunting in the coastal town of Taiji. The animals are rounded up into a “cove” where some are slaughtered for their meat. Many more are sent to water entertainment parks where people munch popcorn and watch them perform tricks. But few may be aware that in China, marine animals have been hunted on an industrial scale

With the growth of the aquatic entertainment industry, trade in marine animals is gathering speed in China. While many Western countries have legislation in place to regulate such trade, Chinese hunters are free to catch and sell dolphins to marine parks and aquariums across the country. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Visitors watch a whale shark at the Whale Shark Aquarium of Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai, China, September 4, 2018. 

According to China Cetacean Alliance Members, as of December 2019, there were 80 marine parks in operation, housing more than 1,000 cetaceans,  and 27 under construction. The animals “earn a living” as surfboards that could belly dance and stand upright in the pool for the applause of gleeful onlookers. All so cute and charming, animals like belugas and dolphins, when they open their mouths, always look like they’re smiling.

However, nearly all these cetaceans representing 13 species in Chinese captivity were taken from the wild when many others died and the young were separated from their families. The animals that have survived this trauma then face a life glass and cement aquariums where they are trained, often under harsh and punishing conditions, to perform tricks to the public. Cetaceans are highly intelligent creatures that know what has happened to them. The difference between their past and current lives is utterly unfathomable..

International pressure on China to cease capturing cetaceans from the wild is growing, but it seems to have made little difference. Of course, this is not singly a Chinese problem, as marine parks like SeaWorld continue to operate in the United States and other countries. But the difference is one of scale. With a population of approximately 1.3 billion people, China has quite the appetite for ocean theme parks and virtually no regulation to slow the trade in marine animals down.  

Also, it’s not just cetaceans out on the high seas that are in danger of getting pulled aboard a Chinese vessel to be hauled off to a theme park. So are critically endangered species within their own fresh water systems, such as the Yangtze finless porpoise, as well as the narrow-ridged finless porpoise, which have been dragged out of Chinese lakes and rivers, imprisoned in tanks, and pulled out later for shows. If these two species do not receive immediate protection, they will quickly go extinct in the wild.

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
A Beluga whale paints during a performance at Tianjin Haichang Polar Ocean World in Tianjin, China, April 1, 2016. 

Places like Shanghai Changfeng Aquarium and Nanchang Wanda Aquarium — among many others — are great money-makers, and putting an end to this trade will not be easy, if even at all possible. A massive public relations campaign to educate Chinese people about the details of where these animals come from and how they are caught and treated is urgently needed. But successful wildlife campaigns in China are not without precedent. 

Chinese basketball legend Yao Ming has spent years speaking out against shark finning, and there are reports that his advocacy has resulted in a notable drop in the consumption of shark fin soup in Guangdong province and beyond. Yao has also travelled to Africa to learn about the plight of rhinoceros and elephants — many of their tusks and horns are bound for China — and he has made educational videos with National Geographic as part of a campaign to stop the slaughter of these majestic megafauna.   

The Chinese government needs to get more involved in regulating the harvesting of wild cetaceans, and we need more influential people like Yao to step up and help the public see what they might have been missing — the gory details, which make these “fun shows” an actual horror.

READ NEXT: Taiwan’s Bygone Species and Their Possible Return 

TNL Editors: Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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