(CN) - Animal rights activists are suing to force a federal agency to compel SeaWorld to release necropsy reports for three whales that died in captivity.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, the plaintiffs, which include PETA, Cetacean Society International and the Animal Welfare Institute, claim the National Marine Fisheries Service is shirking its regulatory responsibilities in claiming it doesn't have the legal authority to force SeaWorld to publicly release the documents sought by the groups.
They are hoping to secure copies of the necorpsy reports and veterinary records for the whales, which Sea World had named Tilikum, Kasatka and Kyara.
Tilikum, a killer whale involved in three human deaths, was featured in the documentary “Blackfish,” which highlighted the dire consequences of keeping whales in captivity. Tilikum died in 2017 from a bacterial lung infection.
That same year, Kasatka died in Sea World’s San Diego park and Tilikum's granddaughter, Kyara, died in San Antonio.
Naomi Rose, a marine scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said the lawsuit was necessary because the lack of public information about the deaths and clonical history of capitve marine animals is slowing scientific research.
“Necropsy and veterinary information is relevant in dealing with the many threats, most of which are human caused, facing free-ranging marine mammals,” she said.
Rose said organizations such as SeaWorld claim to advance research and further understanding of these animals, yet, “the industry publishes very little on such research in the scientific literature, meaning it is not available to the wider scientific community,” she said.
An original provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act required owners of captive whales and dolphins to attain permits that assure they turn over health and necropsy reports to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The act was partially amended in 1994, reducing the agency's authority in the oversight of captive marine mammals, the lawsuit says.
Now, federal regulators claim to have no authority in administering or enforcing the clinical health and necropsy aspects of these permits— a position criticized by plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
When scientists and plaintiffs of the suit, Lori Marino and Heather Rally, attempted to publish a peer-reviewed article about the deaths of captive whales, they were barred from clinical information.
“Apparently Tilikum had [his lung infection] for some months – perhaps years – before his death, meaning whatever treatment Sea World provided may have successfully kept him alive for some time,” Rose said.
“Details on his condition and the treatment he received would have obvious value to facilities caring for live-stranded cetaceans presenting with pneumonia,” she said. “Despite the obvious value of this data, not only does NMFS erroneously believe it no longer has the authority to require submission of these records to the agency, but the facilities themselves refuse to voluntarily offer it.”
According to the complaint and Rose herself, this data remains under lock and key, and is made available only to the scientists the industry trusts.
Jared Goodman, PETA’s director of animal law, said that Tilikum’s illness had sparked precautionary conversations between the organization and the federal agencies in 2017 in order to ensure public access to the whale’s records.
Meanwhile, Daniel Knaub, a director and former president of Cetacean Society International, said “our position is that it is not appropriate to keep whales in captivity.”
Though there is an argument that injured whales or dolphins may benefit from captivity, he said, any enclosure that humans can make would be too small for these creatures.
Knaub, who attended over 17,000 whale watching trips off of the northern East Coast and witnessed the autopsy of a worm-infested Orca, said non-profit groups my want veterinary and necropsy information in order to determine how aquariums can better care for marine life.
Sea World could not be reached for comment.
A representative of the National Marine Fisheries Service declined to comment.
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