The negative impact of the documentary Blackfish on SeaWorld’s marine parkThe negative impact of the documentary Blackfish on SeaWorld’s marine park

The ‘Blackfish Effect’ is a long-lasting phenomenon that will hopefully allow other marine parks to end their animal breeding programs and let their animals go into sanctuaries.

Blackfish SeaWorld’s lies

Blackfish was released in 2013. It focuses on Tilikum who is an orca that has been kept at SeaWorld, the  marine park. Based on interviews with former marine mammal trainers, the documentary highlights conservation and animal welfare concerns surrounding the use of orcas in marine parks like SeaWorld. It also addresses animal trainers’ dangers, such as Tilikum’s death in 2010.

SeaWorld’s stock price dropped by 33% one year after the publication of Blackfish. After the documentary was released, the company launched a vigorous marketing campaign culminating in the 2017 launch of an orca show. This new show is aimed at educating the public about conservation. SeaWorld declared in 2016 that it would end its orca breeding program, effectively making the 22 SeaWorld orcas the last ones to be kept captive.

SeaWorld’s new study shows that Blackfish caused SeaWorld to stop its orca breeding program.

What could have caused SeaWorld to change its orca breeding policy, show design and stock market decline? During my Master’s degree in Biodiversity Conservation & Management at Oxford, I set out to study the effects of the documentary Blackfish. My research “Nature documentaries are catalysts for change. Mapping out the Blackfish Effect” was published in People and Nature, British Ecological Society.

I interviewed 26 key stakeholders with expertise in media communication, marine conservation, and marine mammal welfare to understand the events. SeaWorld leadership declined to participate in my study. My research showed that Blackfish caused negative publicity for SeaWorld and changed how people view captive marine mammals. The park saw a decrease in attendance, and its market value dropped.

Three main factors explain why Blackfish had such an impact. These interviews revealed these three variables. First, the documentary was broadcast by major distribution channels such as CNN and Netflix, which allowed Blackfish to reach a wider audience. Blackfish also brought awareness to the suffering of marine mammal entertainment. Thirdly, Blackfish’ was released at a suitable time. The documentary benefited from a perfect storm that had been building up for a cultural climate to allow its release in 2013. The documentary reached a broad audience thanks to a combination of factors fueled by animal welfare activism and rights advocacy. SeaWorld’s credibility was also eroded by dismissing the documentary, and their response was slow and inept.

My research shows that documentaries can be very powerful change agents. The “Blackfish Effect” is long-lasting and will hopefully open the door for other marine parks to end their animal breeding programs and allow their animals to be retired into sanctuaries.

Blackfish is yet more evidence that marine mammals exist in the wild.

Blackfish was released back in 2013. However, it’s still relevant today, considering that more than 3,000 dolphins and whales are held captive in zoos. Orcas are one of the strongest predators and the largest dolphins in the world. Orcas shouldn’t be kept in captivity as they are 200,000 times smaller than their natural habitat. Dolphins in captivity will not be able to express their natural behaviours.