The National Aquarium in Baltimore has invited a panel of experts to discuss whether its eight captive dolphins should be moved to a beachside sanctuary.
Captive cetaceans can not simply be released into the wild; the only real solution is to allow these magnificent animals to live out there days in a "sea pen." While still kept inside an enclosure, the sea pen would still be significantly larger than any aquarium could provide.
The Baltimore Sun reports:
"After 33 years, it's time," said John Racanelli, who runs the aquarium. "The era of modern aquariums began here in 1981, and a lot has changed.
"We know so much more today about the animals and about our evolving audience — and frankly how urgent the need has become to protect the health of oceans and the Chesapeake Bay. As a conservation organization first and foremost, we have to evolve."
The aquarium is one of Baltimore's biggest tourist attractions with 1.3 million visitors a year.
As part of the assessment, called BLUEprint, the consultants also have been asked to consider how to reimagine the aquarium experience, whether the aquarium should establish an "ocean embassy" in Washington and what role aquariums should play in caring for animals and the environment.
That the aquarium is even asking the question is a sign that the perceived purpose and function of the aquariums in modern society continues to adapt and evolve in lockstep with our scientific understanding of animal welfare.
The aquarium already started to rethink its approach to dolphin welfare several years ago, when it ended its popular "dolphin show." Now, visitors can simply observe the dolphins in as naturalistic a way as possible, and can watch the trainers and keepers interact with their charges.
Racanelli, the aquarium CEO, said the assessment was prompted by the desire to use emerging science to help the attraction fulfill its mission. He pointed toward the Blacktip Reef exhibit, which opened in August and replicates the Indo-Pacific reef with coral and sea creatures, as another example.
"Our highest priority is to ensure the health and well-being of the animals we care for," Racanelli said. "That's No. 1. That's the driver."
Header image: Flickr/atibordee