For Alaskans, orca film might stir memories of '80s-era controversy

A pod of orca whales swim in Gastineau Channel in March 2013.

In the winter and spring of 1984, a heated debate took place in Alaska – playing out on the pages of the Juneau Empire, on the steps of the Capitol building and on the floor of the Alaska Legislature, and, eventually, in front of a federal judge in a courtroom in Anchorage. The issue: should SeaWorld be able to capture 100 orca whales from Alaskan waters over a period of five years and keep 10 of them for public display in their marine parks?


For the majority of Alaskans, the answer was no. And despite the fact that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service had already issued SeaWorld a permit in November 1983, following public meetings in Washington state (but not Alaska), Alaskans began building a case to make them stop. By May 1984, the controversy was all over the news, with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Commissioner Don W. Collinsworth saying in an Associated Press article published in the Empire that the issue had “generated more public concern than any other recent topic.”

Many at the state level took a scientific approach to the debate, claiming more research was needed on orcas before an informed decision could be made about their capture and captivity. For others, such as charter boat captains, economic factors were also a concern. And for others, the objection was primarily ethical: keeping such a family-centered, intelligent and wide-ranging creature captive in a concrete pool, apart from its pod and unable to communicate with them, was inhumane and unnatural. In the words of Angoon mayor Ed Gamble, “Those aren’t killer whales you see at SeaWorld. Putting something in a cage, it makes it no longer what it is.”

A lawsuit was filed, backed by the Sierra Club and a joint resolution in the Alaska Senate and House (sponsored by Sen. Vic Fischer and Rep. Mike Szymanski). And on Jan. 21 1985, a federal judge ruled that because SeaWorld did not prepare an environmental impact statement before seeking their permit to capture orcas in Alaskan waters, that permit was invalid.

Now, the issue is again a hot topic, this time on a national level, following the release of a new documentary, “Blackfish,” The film offers a look at what might have been the fate of the 10 orca whales designated for capture in Alaska in 1984, had Alaskans and others not stepped in to keep them free.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the film follows the story of one captive whale in particular, Tilikum, an orca responsible for the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, and implicated in the deaths of two others. Cowperthwaite set out to figure out why Tilikum killed Brancheau. But her focus soon became more broad, as she became increasingly convinced that killer whales should not be held in captivity. The film presents a strong case for that opinion. (See acccompanying review.)

“Blackfish” is currently showing at the Gold Town Nickelodeon, with shows continuing through next week. On Monday, the theater has organized a live Skype interview with Samantha Berg, a former marine park trainer who appears in the film. The Skype session is scheduled to follow Monday’s 7:15 p.m. show.

The film has been getting lots of media attention, including an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, published Aug. 1 and reprinted on the opinion page of the Empire on Aug. 4, that came down strongly in favor of eliminating the practice of training orcas to be performance animals, concluding “it’s time for the circus to end.”

This week, the Los Angeles Times reported that Cowperthwaite’s film was already having an impact in Hollywood’s treatment of the topic. Pixar, a Disney-owned animation studio, made “substantial changes” to the script of “Finding Dory,” a follow up to “Finding Nemo,” after viewing “Blackfish,” LA Times reporter Amy Kaufman wrote, with chief creative officer John Lasseter and “Dory” director Andrew Stanton meeting with Cowperthwaite to discuss her film. As a result, when the film’s sea creatures are sent to a marine park at the end, they now have the choice to leave. The film is scheduled for release in November 2015.

Also in the news this week (but unrelated to the film), NOAA announced that it had denied the Georgia Aquarium’s request to import 18 beluga whales from a research station located on Russia’s Black Sea coast. The process offers insight into how the public can affect federal policy. In this case, the 60-day public comment period on the permit generated approximately 9,000 comments, according to a NOAA press release. The release stated because public display of marine mammals is allowed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, general comments about keeping whales in parks were not considered, nor were comments regarding the whales’ care, as that issue is handled by the USDA. However, comments “pertaining to humaneness determinations (capture and transport), the age of the animals at capture, the status of the Sakhalin-Amur beluga stock, and the effects of the ongoing capture operation on beluga stocks were directly related to the MMPA issuance criteria and considered further in the decision making process,” the release states. Ultimately, the permit was denied in part because NOAA said they were unable to determine whether or not it would adversely affect the whale group. (

Under the Marine Mammal Protection act, passed in October 1972, no wild animals can be “taken” from US waters – but there are exceptions, and permits are sometimes granted to groups like SeaWorld who intend to put the whales on public display. SeaWorld claims its parks allow experts to gather information about whales that otherwise would not be available, while providing an educational forum for children and other visitors.

There are 45 captive orcas in the US, according to statistics published by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation group. Twenty-two of those whales are held by SeaWorld, which has parks in California, Texas and Florida. Thirteen of the 45 were wild captured and the rest were captive born. (Read more here:

Orcas are not considered an endangered species. However, a subgroup of the Northern Pacific orca population, the Southern Resident group, was listed as endangered following a loss of about 30 percent of the population, attributed to live-captures of whales in Washington state. According to NOAA: “Beginning in the late 1960s, the live-capture fishery for oceanarium display removed an estimated 47 whales and caused an immediate decline in Southern Resident numbers.” The range of this group includes the Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Southern Georgia Strait.

Another subgroup, known as the AT1 Transient group, frequently seen in Prince William Sound, was designated a depleted stock in June 2004, after major losses following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Scientists estimate only 7 whales remain in this group, down from 22 in the 1980s, according to NOAA’s office of Protected Resources. (Read more here:

Since the SeaWorld permit was revoked in Alaska in the 1980s, no orcas have been captured in Alaska. Only one current SeaWorld whale, Lolita, was captured in US waters. (Lolita came from Washington state in 1970, where she was a member of the Southern Resident population mentioned above). Another captive orca whale, Corky, came from British Columbia in 1969, with most of the rest coming from Iceland. Orcas in captivity have a much shorter lifespan, according to WDC figures, and have been documented in exhibiting erratic and aggressive behavior, with Tilikum’s actions marking the extreme end of the scale.

There have been no documented cases of wild orcas killing humans, according to NOAA and other sources, and there is only one known case of a wild orca biting someone – a surfer in the 1970s. In Ketchikan in August 2005, a 12-year-old boy was “bumped” by an orca who seemed to be unsure of what he was – a highly unusual occurrence. After bumping the boy, the orca and his pod went on their way, leaving the boy unharmed. (Read more here:


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Review: 'Blackfish' explores the lives of orcas in captivity


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