Zoos, Aquariums and Animals in Captivity

Note: I wrote this post below back in July 2012 when I lived in Santa Barbara, CA. and was the Assistant Director of the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center. I don’t remember why I decided not to post it back then, but you will understand why I decided to post it now once you get to the end of the story.

I am not going to tell you whether it’s right or wrong to keep animals captive. Instead I want to share a story with you that represents my personal journey that led me to my own opinion on the matter. It’s the story of a sea lion that was born blind and got a second chance at life. We will call her 10-06 for now.

One day while I was on-call for rescues early January 2010, I got a call about a sea lion “pup” that was stranded on a beach near my house. I put the word pup in quotes because folks often mistake young sea lions as pups. California sea lions are born for the most part out on the Channel Islands and the peak pupping season for is mid-June. That means this sea lion was at least 6months old and had theoretically been on her own (as far as feeding is concerned) for at least 3-4 months.

When I arrived at the beach, the caller who reported the animal had left but she said she stuck a piece of driftwood near the animal so I could find it. I saw the driftwood stuck into a bunch of larger rocks on the beach, but I could not find the animal. As I was dialing the woman’s number to get more info on the whereabouts, I looked down and saw a bag of bones that I almost stepped on. It was an emaciated sea lion that looked to weigh no more than 20lbs. Sea lions are about 13-18lbs (give or take) when they are born and a healthy 6month old sea lion should weigh around 50lbs. so it was clear that there something was very wrong with her. She became known as patient 10-06 being that she was rescued in 2010 and she was the 6th animal we had rescued so far that year.

It was without a doubt the smallest and skinniest sea lion I had ever seen for how old she was. It’s eyes were sunken in and closed shut with a thick layer of dried puss. The animal was unresponsive and was hardly breathing as I carried her up the stairs to the truck. My experience told me that her chances of surviving through the night were slim to none. Upon arrival at the Center, we tube fed her a couple pumps of a milkshake of sorts that includes mackerel, fish oil, vitamins and some lactated ringers solution among other things. I’ve seen this formula work miracles and thankfully this time it did just that.

By the next day she was up on her flips and had enough energy to where we felt comfortable enough to give her a proper check-in. We cleaned the dried puss around her eyes and quickly noticed that her eyes were like nothing we had seen before. The eyeballs and lenses were a lot smaller then we had ever seen and we were questioning weather or not she could even see us. After a visit from our vet, our fears were confirmed. In addition to a bad case of pneumonia, patient 10-06 was blind in both eyes and was likely born blind due to some sort of genetic defect.

How she survived so long and made it across our Channel, which is roughly a 25-mile swim is nothing short of a miracle. The bad news was that we could never release her back to the wild like we usually do. Blind sea lions have been witnessed and recorded in the wild, but looking at the weight of 10-06, it was clear that she was not feeding on her own. Releasing her back to the wild would be a death wish. Our two options were to either humanely euthanize her or to find her a permanent home at a zoo or aquarium. Even though I had personally rescued a few hundred marine mammals up to this point, this animal had a special place in my heart for one reason or another, probably because her stay was longer than normal and I spent the most time with her. I watched her go from a 20lb. bag of bones to a healthy 1yo sea lion that weighed 75lbs. She was at our Center for nearly a year compared to most patients that are in and out in a month or so.

Euthanasia was not an option to me although realistically we would be faced with it if we could not find a home for her.  Once again, my emotions were involved and I was all of a sudden very interested in finding her a permanent home in the very places I used to be against. But now, all of a sudden I had a new perspective on zoos and aquariums as they were the only chance of hope and survival for patient 10-06.

The process of finding a zoo or aquarium that is willing to take a sea lion with “special needs” can take some time. Most places prefer to take healthy animals that can breed and reproduce animals for future display. Patient 10-06 was not only blind, but if she were to get pregnant then chances are that her pup would be born blind, too. We knew that whoever agreed to take her would have to do so with an understanding that she would never have pups. We knew she would need a hysterectomy before she went anywhere else.

Patient 10-06 AKA “Squirt”
Patient 10-06 AKA “Squirt”

We normally do not like to pay any extra attention to patients at the Center because they are wild animals and we like them to stay that way. That’s why we give them names like 10-06 instead of a cutesy pet name. It’s because they are not our pets, they are patients at our rehab Center that we want to get in and out ASAP. Even though it’s really easy to want to get real close and even pet them when they will let us, that is not in the animals’ best interest. They are very impressionable animals and if we humanize them while they are at our Center, there is a chance that they will get into trouble by approaching boats and/or people in the wild and either get shot, hooked or even gaffed which I’ve seen in some (fatal) cases. But in the case of 10-06, we knew she would never be released. We believed it was in her best interest to get to know us and let her know that we mean no harm considering she was going to be around humans the rest of her life. We got her a little turtle pool for her cage and she invented a trick where she would take a mouthful of water and squirt it up 3 feet in the air and catch it in her mouth and would repeat this until she was all out of water. She quickly earned the name “Squirt” and everyone made an effort to talk to her and spend time with her so she would get used to the attention.

After several months we got news that Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas was willing to take care of Squirt for the rest of her life. I immediately went to their website to learn as much about them as I could. I was very impressed with the facility. I learned that Moody Gardens takes a genuine approach to making a visit to their aquarium as educational of an experience as possible for the 2 million people that visit every year. More importantly I learned that their pinnipeds do not participate in shows performing circus acts for food and human entertainment. In fact, they have a very huge large pool to swim in and the only tricks or commands that they learn are to ensure that the employees can feed and examine the animals safely. There are balls and ropes that the animals can play with for enrichment on their own terms if they wish, and they usually do. She would also have 3 new friends: an 800lb. Adult male sea lion named Dino and 2 adult harbor seals, one of which has only one eye (another rescue). This all made me feel a lot better about Squirts new digs.

Squirt getting ready for a 2am red eye flight
Squirt getting ready for a 2am red eye flight

In November 2010 our vet performed a successful hysterectomy and once the stitches were out, Squirt was ready to go. Two reps from Moody Gardens came to visit Santa Barbara for a few days with the plan of taking Squirt back to Texas with them. They had constructed a special cage for her for transport from the Center to the airport, the plane ride, and then the final trip from the airport to Moody Gardens. She was literally FedEx’d there! When she arrived at Moody Gardens, she was brought to the quarantine zone which has a pool that is about 15’x15’ and about 5 feet deep. The quarantine zone is private and separate from the main pool and animals on display. The folks at Moody Gardens were thoughtful enough to have a turtle pool in the quarantine zone waiting for her so that she would have something familiar. This proved to be effective in helping her to be comfortable as she checked out the room. She would keep one flip in the pool as she explored the area around the turtle pool but the bigger pool was just out of reach. An employee slashed water in the pool to make noises and hopefully attract Squirt and it worked. She was swimming free in a pool that was larger than she had seen since her swim across the Channel. We were anxious to see how she weather or not she would be bouncing off the walls in the pool so our videographer entered the pool to film her underwater.

She was amazing to watch! She would start by swimming cautiously with her flips out, feeling the walls on all 4 sides. This lasted only a minute or two then once she got to know her space limitations, she was more and more active. In fact, she was so happy in that pool that they could not coax her to come out for 3 days (not even for food)! I saw the video of her feeling her way around the turtle pool and swimming in the bigger pool for the first time and lets just say water came out of my face (I never said I cried).

Squirt chillin at Moody Gardens
Squirt chillin at Moody Gardens

She stayed quarantined for a couple weeks while she learned the necessary commands to be examined and fed. Then, she was introduced to the public display pool that she had all to herself for a few days as she got used to it. Eventually, her 3 new friends were introduced one by one every couple days as not to overwhelm her. Again, I am extremely impressed with the steps Moody Garden takes to ensure the animals best interest.


For those first few weeks it was all very bittersweet to me. I was so happy we found her a good home, but I missed Squirt. Thankfully Moody Gardens had me covered. They have a live seal cam on their website that refreshes every few seconds. This was great for me to always be able to see how she was doing, but I can’t imagine it was good for my boss as I think I spent around 4-5 hours a day watching her and basically geeking out on her being happy for the first couple months. Now I only check I once a day or so and I think I always will.


Squirt swimming at Moody Gardens
Squirt swimming at Moody Gardens

I noticed one day that Squirt was catching a free ride on the backs of her new friends. She appeared to be trying to climb on their backs when they swam by and eventually she got her way…

Squirt hitching a ride on Dino's back
Squirt hitching a ride on Dino’s back


squirt6To this day, I still have the duct tape label we had taped to Squirts cage for a year with Squirts number on it stuck above my desk at work as a constant reminder of my old friend. I hope to make it out to Moody Gardens one day soon to pay her a visit that is long overdue.



UPDATE: I  visited Squirt at Moody Gardens on Friday, September 29th, 2017! It was my first time seeing her since she left California via FedEx over 6 years ago. :)




New Model-Based Approach to Accurately Estimate Rare Event Sensitive Species “Bycatch”

I’ll start with a quick note that the Magnuson-Stevens Act does not consider marine mammal entanglements to be “bycatch,” a term which is restricted in the statute to describe fish that are caught and discarded at sea. Instead, marine mammal entanglements incidental to commercial fishing are defined as “takes” which are authorized and permitted in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This should explain my heavy use of quotation marks.

The California shark and swordfish drift gillnet (DGN) fishery is one example of a fishery that occasionally entangles marine mammals, but fortunately these unwanted interactions are rare events. Since 1990, the DGN fishery has been required to carry on-board observers to record catch data and over the last 25 years observer coverage levels have hovered around 25%. So how can you accurately estimate annual “bycatch” totals without observing 100% of the trips?

Traditionally, annual “bycatch” totals in the DGN fishery have been generated (or extrapolated) from available observer data using ratio estimates, i.e., 2 sperm whale entanglements were observed in the DGN fishery during the 2010 fishing season with 12% observer coverage, so one could estimate that 16.7 sperm whales were caught that year. Traditional ratio estimates seem pretty fair and straightforward, so what’s the problem?
TIRNOne gigantic problem with traditional ratio estimates is that they often suffer from systematic bias (under-and overestimation of “bycatch”). For example, the most recent sperm whale interaction observed in the DGN fishery prior to the 2 sperm whale interactions in 2010 was back in 1999. Given the historical rarity of sperm whale interactions in the DGN fishery, one could argue that assuming 16.7 sperm whales were actually caught in 2010 while relying solely on traditional data extrapolation is a prime example of overestimating “bycatch.” Furthermore, this particular sperm whale event in 2010 resulted in a temporary DGN fishery area closure and triggered a series of several other reactions and actions from scientists, fisheries managers and NGOs. Bad data is bad for everybody, especially when dealing with endangered species. To this point, Martin et al. (2015) highlights many problems with the estimation and prediction of rare event “bycatch” events combined with low observer coverage in the DGN fishery.

But the good news is that there is a new alternative to annual ratio estimates that result in more stable interannual estimates with better precision called regression tree estimates. But don’t let the negative-sounding name fool you because regression tree estimates are actually very progressive in terms of rethinking the old, traditional, dopey and inaccurate ratio estimator and replacing it with a more probabilistic, model-based estimation approach that moderates inter-annual volatility in “bycatch” estimates. So by all means I urge you to please read, enjoy and share this new paper (the file is over 7mb so give it some time to load):
Carretta, J.V., J.E. Moore, and K.A. Forney. 2017. Regression tree and ratio estimates of marine mammal, sea turtle, and seabird bycatch in the California drift gillnet fishery: 1990-2015. NOAA Technical Memorandum, NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFSC-568.83p.

sperm_whaleIn the paper you will notice some large differences between annual “bycatch” estimates using regression trees and ratio estimators. For example, the regression tree estimate of sperm whale “bycatch” for the 2010 DGN fishing season was 2.0 whales (2 observed + zero estimated in 433 unobserved sets) compared to a traditional ratio estimate of 16.7 whales. According to the study, given the observed sperm whale “bycatch” rate in the DGN fishery over 26 years (~ 1 animal for every 1,000 sets), it is highly unlikely that observed + unobserved “bycatch” in 2010 was ~ 17 whales. Instead, the study suggests that it is more likely that there were two entanglements, both of which happened to be observed. Like I mentioned before, this serves as a prime example of how ratio estimates can overestimate “bycatch”, but what about underestimations?

According to the study, another problem with traditional annual ratio estimates is that when zero “bycatch” is observed, resulting “bycatch” estimates are zero (with no variance estimate), even if undetected “bycatch” occurs. For example, zero sperm whale entanglements were observed in 648 sets in the first two years of the DGN observer program (1990-1991), when total fishing effort was estimated at over 9,000 sets. Resulting annual ratio estimates of sperm whale “bycatch” in 1990-1991 were zero, which one could be considered an underestimate given the observed long-term “bycatch” rate on 1 whale in every 1,000 sets. In contrast, regression tree “bycatch” estimates for 1990-1991 are approximately 7 sperm whales, which is much more realistic considering the amount of fishing effort.

Progression is good and I can’t stress enough how important it is to have accurate data, which is why I am delighted to share this new study which clearly serves as an example of #OceanOptimism.

Sea Lion Rescue – Mother’s Day 2009

As I mentioned in My Journey, I volunteered as the Assistant Director of the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center from 2007-2011. Every weekend and sometimes during the week I was on-call for any and all marine mammal rescues in Santa Barbara County. During those four years or so I estimate that I personally rescued over 1,200 marine mammals, and fortunately over 90% of them were successfully rehabbed and released alive.

But the ones that didn’t make it tend to stand out more in my mind than the ones that did, mainly because I was involved in the euthanization process which is never fun.

This is a video of me rescuing one of the ones who didn’t make it filmed by the man who called it in. She had a rotten burst abscess on her left fore flipper with exposed broken bones that were rotting as well. Amputation was not an option because sea lions swim with their fore flippers. Consequently, this animal was humanely euthanized about 20 minutes after this was filmed. When you see me looking at her wound through the side of the cage at the end of the video, that’s the very moment that I knew we would have to put her down.

The bright side of this tough experience for me was that I was able to get to this animal quickly, before anyone harassed it. In other words, I’m glad that at least it didn’t spend it’s last hours alive suffering any more than it already was.

Your Definition of Bycatch is Most Likely Incorrect

One thing we can all agree on is that bycatch is a very serious problem that threatens healthy fisheries and healthy oceans worldwide. But unfortunately, one thing we cannot seem to agree on is the definition of the word “bycatch” itself. I have come across many concerned citizens, ocean conservationists, and even fishermen who have conflicting definitions of what they think is considered bycatch, which only compounds the seriousness of this complex issue.

So what is your definition and understanding of the word “bycatch?”

What if a longliner who is primarily targeting tuna also caught some “non-target” species such as sharks, swordfish, opah and other marketable fish on the same set and brought it all back to port to be sold to the markets; do you consider these “non-target” species to be bycatch in this tuna fishery? If you answered yes, you are not alone. But unfortunately, according to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act if you answered yes, you are wrong.


The Definition of Bycatch

The definition of bycatch, as stated in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, is:

“Fish which are harvested in a fishery, but which are not sold or kept for personal use, and includes economic discards and regulatory discards. Such term does not include fish released alive under a recreational catch and release fishery management program.”


Because this definition does not include marine mammals, seabirds, and other resources that fall under the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) responsibility, the NMFS uses the following definition of bycatch for its National Bycatch Strategy and bycatch reduction efforts:

“Discarded catch of any living marine resource, plus unobserved mortality due to direct encounter with fishing gear.”


The same rule goes for all U.S. commercial fisheries. While the definition of the word bycatch can vary internationally, any seafood that is brought to port and sold or kept for personal use (such as bait) in any U.S. commercial fishery is not considered to be bycatch according to U.S. Federal law.


Incorrect Definitions of Bycatch

According to The Safina Center at Stony Brook University:

“Bycatch refers to the unwanted sea life people catch when they are fishing for something else.”

According to Oceana’s “Wasted Catch” report:

“Bycatch is the capture of non-target fish and ocean wildlife, including what is brought to port and what is discarded at sea dead or dying.”

So why is this important? One reason it’s important is because when the world’s largest ocean conservation organization does not understand what bycatch even is, then we have a very big problem. When ocean conservation organizations do not understand what bycatch is, it can lead to scientifically flawed statistics published in reports such as “Wasted Catch” which only amplify the confusion by spreading misinformation about responsible U.S. fisheries to the mass general public. I urge you to please read the Regional Fishery Management Council Coordination Committee’s response letter to Oceana’s scientifically flawed “Wasted Catch” report here. As the CCC points out, failure to understand the definition of bycatch severely undermines the many examples of successful bycatch reduction efforts that have been demonstrated by responsible U.S. fisheries to date.

Another reason it is important to understand the true definition of bycatch is that most of the “non-target” species that are mistaken as bycatch by some folks are actually very important components to the economic viability of several responsible U.S. fisheries. More times than not, fishermen rely on catching other marketable species that are not primarily targeted in order to make any kind of profit at all. But economics aside, it’s also important to understand that more and more consumers are demanding local seafood, and non-target species only add to the abundance and diversity of our U.S. seafood choices.


When NGOs and the general public think byctach means one thing, and fisheries managers and scientists know that bycatch means something else, it makes it more difficult for us all to work together to combat this serious problem as a united front. Until we can all agree on what bycatch really means, I’m afraid we may be doing more bad than good for our oceans.