At noon on Saturday, a group of activists is scheduled to gather outside the National Aquarium in Baltimore as part of a world-wide "Empty the Tanks" protest against what organizers decry as the exploitation of dolphins for public entertainment. The idea is to get the public to understand the level of awareness captive dolphins and other sea mammals have and the psychological and physical harm they suffer in aquariums and sea parks. At least here in Baltimore, the focus on the public may well be key because those in charge of the aquarium are plenty aware already.

National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli has made headlines in the last two weeks for openly contemplating the idea of shutting down the facility's dolphin attraction on the grounds that animals with the sentience of dolphins are ill served by life in captivity. Considering the fanfare with which the aquarium has promoted the dolphin pavilion — not to mention the substantial public investment in it — that came as something of a shock to many in the community. It's difficult to hear that a tourist attraction, even the scaled-back version the aquarium has featured in recent years, is cruel.

But that's not the only unsettling thing to be coming out of Piers 3 and 4 these days. Mr. Racanelli says he and the aquarium's board are reimagining the entire mission of the organization from being an aquarium that sought to raise interest in conservation to a conservation group that has an aquarium as an outreach tool. That may be well and good for the organization, but what does it mean for one of the most significant drivers of Baltimore's tourist economy?

Mr. Racanelli sat down with The Sun's editorial board this week for an extensive interview, it was evident that he and the aquarium's board appreciate the complexity of the question before them and that they are committed to moving forward in a deliberative, transparent manner. It is increasingly clear, given the scientific research into dolphins' intelligence and social needs, that the day will come when these animals are not kept in captivity. What is less clear is what to do with the dolphins themselves or the space they now occupy, and how to manage the transition in such a way that it does not hurt, and ideally helps, the aquarium's future viability.

The National Aquarium is home to eight dolphins, all but one of whom were born in captivity. Given the uncertainty of simply releasing them into the ocean, aquarium officials are considering the idea of moving them to some sort of a dolphin sanctuary, like ones that have been created for primates, elephants and other higher-order mammals that have previously been held in zoos. But no such facility presently exists, and even if it did, the welfare of the National Aquarium's dolphins would not be assured. The oldest of the group, Nani, is 42, and even the journey to a sanctuary at this point might be taxing. Furthermore, the quality of water the dolphins are accustomed to is much higher than that which can now be found in the oceans.

As for the space, there is a case to be made that the aquarium might be better off without the dolphins irrespective of the moral concerns of their captivity. Their pavilion takes up a third of the aquarium's footprint but occupies nowhere near a third of visitors' attention. A typical visitor will engage with the dolphin exhibit for 15 minutes but will spend twice that at the new Blacktip Reef exhibit, which has a much smaller footprint. It's entirely possible that the aquarium could use the dolphins' space for a variety of attractions that would collectively create an even bigger draw.

Moreover, the moral case for releasing the dolphins may soon be a business case. Attitudes toward dolphins among Millennials are markedly different than those of their parents, Mr. Racanelli said. Polling now shows that those under the age of 37 are actually less inclined to go to an aquarium that has dolphins than to one that doesn't, he said. That shift coincides with a greater interest in viewing a venue like an aquarium more as a conduit to activity and engagement than as a spectacle. To that extent, refocusing the aquarium's mission on promoting conservation isn't mere do-goodery but a savvy reading of the market trends.

Nearly 25 years ago, the aquarium opened a pavilion to train dolphins for humans' entertainment. In the process, it also trained the humans to expect to see dolphins in captivity. That may be difficult for many in the public to un-learn. But the aquarium thrived before the dolphins, and it can continue to do so if they are gone.


To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.