VALLEJO, Calif. -- Half a world away, four pseudorcas, or false killer whales, are penned along the shore of a small Japanese island.
Officials with Marine World Africa USA say they saved the animals from certain death at the hands of Japanese fishermen and now want to use those mammals in a new exhibit at the Vallejo oceanarium.
But animal-rights activists claim the park officials were participating in a black market of sorts -- buying the whales from fishermen who round up and slaughter the animals partly because they compete with their fleets for fish, but also to satisfy demand from the captive marine mammal industry.
The park cannot legally import the whales without violating federal law. And now that the animals have become accustomed to humans, Marine World officials say releasing them could put them in jeopardy.
"If they have lost their fear of people they are going to come up to a fishing boat or a dock on Iki Island and be harpooned," said Marine World spokesman Jim Bonde.
Marine World is considering selling the animals to an oceanarium in Japan, Mr. Bonde said.
The dispute is part of a long-term controversy between animal-rights activists who object to animals in captivity, and the parks, which say public education has helped rally support for protecting the animals.
"Americans killed killer whales until the 1960s, until they were brought into captivity and Americans fell in love with cetaceans," Mr. Bonde said.
"The same thing can happen in Japan," Mr. Bonde said. ". . . The Japanese do not look at whales and dolphins as the environmental icons that Americans do."
Mark Berman, a program associate with the Earth Island Institute in San Francisco, said if the aquarium industry stopped paying $5,000 to $10,000 per animal "there is a good chance" the Japanese would stop rounding them up.
"It is time to just leave these animals free in the ocean," Mr. Berman said. "The educational value is false. The Japanese have had them in aquariums for 10 years and it hasn't changed anything.
"And by bringing four of them over here to stick in a concrete tank to swim in a circle teaches nothing but the abuse of nature."
Marine World has held a permit from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service since 1987 to capture four pseudorcas with nets in the open ocean and import them for a new exhibit at the park in Vallejo.
The park spokesman said construction is expected to begin soon and will be completed by 1995. The plan was to capture the animals this year and train them while construction was under way.
Pseudorcas, more commonly known as false killer whales, are larger than the Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins yet smaller than the killer whales, or orcas, currently displayed at the park.
Mr. Berman said there is evidence that some of the animals are brokered in advance and the fishermen pull out the best looking animals for the parks.
Ann Turbish, permits chief with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the park cannot import those animals with its existing permit but could amend its application.
Ms. Turbish said the government agency never has investigated whether the captive animal market encourages the Japanese slaughters.
"This is the first time the issue has come up," she said.