How the documentary Blackfish negatively impacted the marine park SeaWorld
A study showing that the documentary contributed to SeaWorld’s decision to end its orca breeding programme, hopefully paving the way for more marine parks to follow suit.
Blackfish revealed SeaWorld’s lies
Released in 2013, Blackfish focuses on Tilikum, an orca kept in captivity at the marine park SeaWorld in the USA. Built upon interviews of former marine mammal trainers, the documentary highlights various conservation and animal welfare issues surrounding the use of orcas in marine parks such as SeaWorld, as well as the dangers animal trainers face - seeing that Tilikum killed his trainer in 2010.
One year after the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld’s stock market price fell by 33%. The company deployed an aggressive marketing campaign to restore its image following the documentary, culminating with the launch of a new orca show in 2017, focused on educating the public about orca conservation. In 2016, SeaWorld announced it would stop its orca breeding programme, effectively making the 22 orcas at the time at SeaWorld the last generation in captivity.
New study shows that Blackfish pushed SeaWorld to end its orca breeding programme
So what may have caused such a U-turn in SeaWorld’s orca breeding policy, the design of its show and the fall of its stock market value? I decided to investigate the impacts of the documentary Blackfish during my Master’s in Biodiversity Conservation and Management at the University of Oxford. My research ‘Nature documentaries as catalysts for change: Mapping out the ‘Blackfish Effect’ has just been published in the journal People and Nature from the British Ecological Society.
To understand what happened, I interviewed 26 key stakeholders with a range of expertise in marine conservation, marine mammal welfare and media communication. SeaWorld's leadership refused to take part in my study. I found evidence that Blackfish led to negative publicity for SeaWorld and changed how people viewed marine mammal captivity. As a result, attendance at the park decreased and the market value of the company dropped.
These interviews revealed three main variables which explain why Blackfish had such a wide impact. Firstly, the documentary was broadcasted by major distribution channels like CNN and Netflix, which allowed Blackfish to reach a wider public. Secondly, Blackfish was able to engage hearts and minds on the animal suffering caused by marine mammal entertainment. Thirdly, Blackfish’s release was timely: the documentary benefitted from a perfect storm, which had been building up to create an appropriate cultural climate for its release in 2013. A confluence of factors, fuelled by animal welfare and rights activism, enabled the documentary to resonate with a wide public. Furthermore, SeaWorld lost credibility by dismissing the documentary as lies, and their response was regarded as slow and inadequate.
Overall, my research demonstrates that documentaries can be powerful change agents. The ‘Blackfish Effect’ is long-lasting, and will hopefully pave the way for other marine parks to stop their animal breeding programmes and retire their animals into sanctuaries.
Blackfish is yet another piece of evidence that marine mammals belong in the wild
Though Blackfish was released in 2013, it is sadly still relevant today, seeing that there are currently more than 3,000 whales and dolphins held captive in zoos, aquaria or marine parks. Orcas are the world’s biggest dolphins and one of the most powerful predators. It’s therefore no surprise that orcas should not live in captivity, seeing that the average dolphin tank is 200,000 times smaller than their home range. In captivity, dolphins will never be able to express their full range of natural behaviours in captivity.
Despite some legislative progress in Australia and Belgium earlier this year, in France last year and Canada in 2019, marine mammal captivity and entertainment is still allowed in many countries in the world. The accreditation of zoos and aquaria is not enough, we must bring an end to the inherent cruelty of marine mammal captivity.
Article written by Laure Boissat. Laure Boissat holds an MSc in Biodiversity Conservation from the University of Oxford and has built our Animal Protection Index in 2020.