Orphan orca gains attention of whale advocates

UPDATE, Jan. 23, 2010

I keep hearing rumors that some kind of lawsuit may be filed to address the captivity of the young killer whale named Morgan, who is being kept in an aquarium in the Netherlands. I’m continuing to ask questions about the role of the Dutch government and what kinds of permits are needed to keep, sell or trade the orca.

Here’s an e-mail I received from Wietse van der Werf of Orca Coalition:

“The MinIstry responsible for the overseeing of the Morgan case has made some seriously mistakes and seems to be happy with the advice given by the Dolphinarium to keep orca Morgan in captivity, without any type of independent review of this advice.

“The Ministry argues that the general permit under which the Dolphinarium operates (under which they are allowed to keep otherwise protected animals) covers them to keep Morgan also. We argue that this is not the case for various reasons, including the fact that the conditions of their permit is that animals are only allowed to be taken from the wild for the purpose of rehabilitation and will need to be released back into their natural habitat. The fact is that there are various scientists who have already said that there are options for her release, the Dolphinarium have just chosen to ignore these up until this point. Legally the Dolphinarium has a duty to release Morgan back to the wild.

“Secondly the permits states specifically that if an animal is unable to be released back into the wild, they are only allowed to be kept for scientific research purposes, which means that the transfer to another commercial captive facility, like the Dolphinarium has been suggesting (they have mentioned SeaWorld numerous times) is prohibited by the permit under which the Dolphinarium argues she is currently held. We argue that they have breached the permit on various other points as well, meaning that she is currently kept illegally in the Dolphinarium as the permits has become invalid.

“We do believe that the government can still be pressured and/or persuaded to intervene in Morgan’s case and we believe that the legal and political steps we are currently taking as a coalition of 7 organizations has the best possible chance of achieving this aim.

“In the view of the government (Ministry), the Dolphinarium would not need to be given permission to ‘sell’ her to SeaWorld, however they will need to approve a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) permit, which is needed to transport her out of the country, or a EEG permit in case she is moved within the European Union. We still hope we can get the Ministry to make a decision to intervene before it gets to this stage.

“There is no indication that Morgan would be sold to SeaWorld for money. If anything, she would be traded for other animals, like has happened in the past between the Dolphinarium and SeaWorld (in 1987 an orca was moved to SeaWorld in exchange for her young, which all died on birth), but it is not normal for animals to be sold for cash.

“You are very right when you say that it should be government officials that should be making the critical decisions. From the developments in the last few months it has become painstakingly clear that there is a profound incompetence to deal with these types of situations. It is also clear that the Dolphinarium and the Ministry have had a good and cozy relationship for many years. For years the Ministry has given controversial permits for the keeping of animals which were taken from the wild for purpose of ‘rehabilitation’ yet then kept in captivity on the grounds of ‘educational purposes’ and have since been entertaining visitors in the Dolphinarium, while they are perfectly healthy enough to be released.”

—–

If you haven’t heard, there’s an orphan orca that has been nursed back to health in a dolphin marine park in the Netherlands, a facility similar to SeaWorld in the U.S.

Quite a number of marine mammal researchers, activists and educators are pushing a plan to release the young killer whale back into the wild. But, on advice of a scientific panel, the owners of the Harderwijk Dolfinarium (Dutch language version) announced last month that the 2-year-old orca, known as Morgan, will remain in captivity for life.

I’ve been trying to get information about the role of the Dutch government in this incident and find out how much control government officials have over the aquarium industry in their country. Does the government have authority to step in and order the release of the killer whale? Who owns the Dolfinarium, and how are such decisions made? I’ve had difficulty getting answers because of the distance and language barrier, and I would appreciate help from anyone who can provide some answers.

The reason I’m wondering about all this is because of the central role played by the National Marine Fisheries Service in the U.S. when a young killer whale named Springer suddenly showed up in Puget Sound all by herself. Oddly enough, at the same time, another orphan orca named Luna was discovered in Nootka Sound along the West Coast of Vancouver Island in Canada.

I’ve talked before of my involvement in breaking the news of the two lonely orphans, both many miles from their families, and covering the rescue of Springer and the attempted rescue of Luna. (See Water Ways, Aug. 10, 2010.) What I recall quite vividly was that NMFS in the U.S and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Canada were really calling the shots in both cases. That’s why I’m still seeking answers about Morgan.

To bring you up to date, the story of Morgan goes back to last summer, when the young orca was found alone and apparently ill in the Wadden Sea off the coast of the Netherlands. She was taken to the Harderwijk Dolfinarium, about an hour from Amsterdam, where she was nursed back to health.

According to reports, including an account on FreeMorgan.com, the Dutch government allowed the capture with the understanding that she would be returned to the wild. It turns out that veterinarians found no apparent problems except for a skin condition and severe malnourishment. Morgan was fed dead fish in her tank, and she quickly regained a normal weight after about 2.5 months.

She was given the name “Morgan” by aquarium staff, who said: “It is a Scottish Celtic name and we chose it because she may well come from the north of Scotland.” (See story in Dutch News.)

Later genetic testing revealed the young whale probably belongs to a subpopulation of killer whales that frequent Norwegian waters, though a connection with Icelandic killer whales could not be ruled out. Her vocalizations were associated with a Norwegian clan that hunts for herring.

Seven killer whale experts were asked for their advice about what to do. All recommended against her release, according to the report titled “Expert advice on the releasability of the rescued killer whale (Orcinus orca) Morgan (PDF 1.6 mb).”

Reasons given for that conclusion:

  • She had already imprinted on humans and probably would approach boats, which would create a hazard,
  • She may lack the appropriate hunting skills,
  • There may be a reason, psychologically or socially, that she became separated from her pod, and
  • Returning her to her home region would be difficult challenge because of rough winds and waters.

Even before the dolphinarium announced its fateful decision, a group of other killer whale supporters had developed a release plan under the banner of The Free Morgan Group. The idea would be to place her in a good-sized sea pen, where she would be trained to follow a boat and respond to acoustic signals. Morgan could then be released with observers nearby to see how she responds to other killer whales, according to the release plan (PDF 552 kb).

The project would be costly, but the group believes that animal supporters and organizations would provide financial help in returning Morgan to the wild, and much would be learned from the exercise.

The group of more than a dozen experts — including Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and Robin Baird of Cascadia Research, both in Puget Sound — concluded with this statement in their report:

“The expert panel recognizes that returning Morgan to a natural life in the ocean will involve complex procedures and unknown factors, all of which may carry risks to Morgan. The expert panel is prepared, from the outset, to attribute no blame to participants for any failure, or hindrance to Morgan’s successful release and request only that best efforts are made to help Morgan regain her ocean life.”

For additional information, check out Orca Network’s web page about Morgan.

3 thoughts on “Orphan orca gains attention of whale advocates

  1. UPDATE, Jan. 23, 2010

    I keep hearing rumors that some kind of lawsuit may be filed to address the captivity of the young killer whale named Morgan, who is being kept in an aquarium in the Netherlands. I’m continuing to ask questions about the role of the Dutch government and what kinds of permits are needed to keep, sell or trade the orca.

    Here’s an e-mail I received from Wietse van der Werf of Orca Coalition:

    “The MinIstry responsible for the overseeing of the Morgan case has made some seriously mistakes and seems to be happy with the advice given by the Dolphinarium to keep orca Morgan in captivity, without any type of independent review of this advice.

    “The Ministry argues that the general permit under which the Dolphinarium operates (under which they are allowed to keep otherwise protected animals) covers them to keep Morgan also. We argue that this is not the case for various reasons, including the fact that the conditions of their permit is that animals are only allowed to be taken from the wild for the purpose of rehabilitation and will need to be released back into their natural habitat. The fact is that there are various scientists who have already said that there are options for her release, the Dolphinarium have just chosen to ignore these up until this point. Legally the Dolphinarium has a duty to release Morgan back to the wild.

    “Secondly the permits states specifically that if an animal is unable to be released back into the wild, they are only allowed to be kept for scientific research purposes, which means that the transfer to another commercial captive facility, like the Dolphinarium has been suggesting (they have mentioned SeaWorld numerous times) is prohibited by the permit under which the Dolphinarium argues she is currently held. We argue that they have breached the permit on various other points as well, meaning that she is currently kept illegally in the Dolphinarium as the permits has become invalid.

    “We do believe that the government can still be pressured and/or persuaded to intervene in Morgan’s case and we believe that the legal and political steps we are currently taking as a coalition of 7 organizations has the best possible chance of achieving this aim.

    “In the view of the government (Ministry), the Dolphinarium would not need to be given permission to ‘sell’ her to SeaWorld, however they will need to approve a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) permit, which is needed to transport her out of the country, or a EEG permit in case she is moved within the European Union. We still hope we can get the Ministry to make a decision to intervene before it gets to this stage.

    “There is no indication that Morgan would be sold to SeaWorld for money. If anything, she would be traded for other animals, like has happened in the past between the Dolphinarium and SeaWorld (in 1987 an orca was moved to SeaWorld in exchange for her young, which all died on birth), but it is not normal for animals to be sold for cash.

    “You are very right when you say that it should be government officials that should be making the critical decisions. From the developments in the last few months it has become painstakingly clear that there is a profound incompetence to deal with these types of situations. It is also clear that the Dolphinarium and the Ministry have had a good and cozy relationship for many years. For years the Ministry has given controversial permits for the keeping of animals which were taken from the wild for purpose of ‘rehabilitation’ yet then kept in captivity on the grounds of ‘educational purposes’ and have since been entertaining visitors in the Dolphinarium, while they are perfectly healthy enough to be released.”

  2. The 7 experts chosen by the dolphinarium are not all orca experts.
    In fact, there is no expertise at all of the Northern Atlantic Orca, which is suspicious in my opinion. Why did they not include Northern Atlantic experts in their report? And why do they ignore the one expert they have, Urgarte, who said “the best option would be to transfer her to a large sea pen”. Where she could interact with other orca’s (on free will!) and even find her family or a related pod.
    She should go A.S.A.P. to the delta facility for rehabilitation, instead of being in the hands of trainers who want to make her dependent of human, a slave to entertainment!

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