The European Association of Aquatic Mammals supports the development of sea pens in Europe for the purpose of rescue and rehabilitation of stranded or ill marine mammals living in the wild where transport, accommodation, and care can be delivered in accordance with best professional practices and in compliance with all laws governing the welfare of marine mammals kept in human care.
Increasingly, critics of zoological parks suggest the creation of sea pens or sea cages, i.e., fenced enclosures in open oceans or seas, to hold marine mammals. Typically publicized as proposals for “sanctuaries” to paint a more appealing public image, sea pen proponents seek to provide space for rehabilitation of rescued animals and/or the relocation of zoo animals. There are no sea pens in Europe today, however, certain organizations are publicizing their ideas and proposals to build sea pens in various Member States.
The establishment of additional facilities for the rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals in Europe is most welcome. The mission of zoological parks includes rescue and rehabilitation of stranded and ill marine mammals and every effort is made to assist animals in distress. Reintroduction is the end goal of every program for all animals that are deemed – preferably by governments – to be releasable. Zoological parks routinely respond to calls by citizens and governments to provide emergency response for sick or compromised marine mammals. When mass stranding, or natural or manmade disasters occur, however, additional space beyond what zoological parks have available or can improvise, may be necessary.
Some suggest that sea pens also may be used as a stepping stone to release cetaceans currently in zoological parks into the wild. Even critics of zoological parks agree that dolphins and whales born and/or kept in human care for public exhibition and education are not likely to survive if released into the wild. When marine mammals are rescued and rehabilitated by zoological parks, great care is taken to restrict human-animal interaction to the greatest extent possible to preserve the possibility of reintroduction of animals whose health is restored.
Great care must be taken to plan, create, and operate any sea pen that may be constructed for rescued marine mammals. Sea pens can expose marine mammals to risks of illness and/or disease from toxins and other pollutants in the ocean, as well as viruses. Storms, strong currents and other weather-related phenomena and underwater noise beyond the control of facility operators also can endanger or disturb animals in sea pens. Where sea pens are used for marine mammals, emergency contingency plans must be available, including the possibility for appropriate transport, relocation, and long-term care in a safe inland facility within hours of detecting significant threats to the health and welfare of the animals.
Whether called zoos, parks, sea pens or sanctuaries, all facilities that hold marine mammals must be managed in accordance with best professional practices as reflected in standards and guidelines adopted by experienced professional marine mammal organizations such as the EAAM. All marine mammals should be transported, accommodated and cared for in accordance with laws and regulations applicable to non-domesticated animals in human care. Where sea pens are proposed or used for the purpose of public display of marine mammals in the European Union, all additional legal requirements for education, research and conservation should be satisfied in accordance with the EU Zoos Directive.