Saturday, December 20, 2014

Isinglass: The history of a useful but invisible marine product

Recently, the "Food Babe" (real name: Vani Hari) has called attention to the fact that alcoholic beverages (beer and wine) do not adhere to the same labeling requirements as other foods in the US. Many of the ingredients and flavors, as well as the process of brewing alcohol, is considered proprietary information for companies- they do not have to disclose these to the public under current law. In Hari's opinion, alcohol companies should post their ingredients for purposes of exposing possible allergens, health concerns of consumers, and personal dietary restrictions (such as vegan and vegetarianism) . Her biggest issue seems to be with two specific things. One is an ingredient and the other is a product utilized in alcohol fining/clarification: corn syrup and isinglass.

The issue of corn syrup is not of particular interest to me, but isinglass is something I have run across in my research and my historian ears always perk up when something I previously thought of only in a historical context enters current conversations.

Isinglass, a term that probably comes from the Dutch word huisenblas or German hausenblase (meaning sturgeon bladder) is a gelatin product made from fish swim bladders (often known as 'sounds'). The fish swim bladder allows fish to control their buoyancy.

In 1908, George White of the US Bureau of Fisheries described the process for making gelatin from the collagen contained in swim bladders. The collagen of the trachea of a mammal generally requires heating to 100 degrees Celsius to transform into gelatin and the ear collagen requires heating to 110 degrees. Fish swim bladders convert to gelatin at room temperature.The sound contains a thin outer layer and a thicker layer which contains most of the collagen. The swim bladder is removed and the thicker layer is separated from the thin layer. Then the thick layer is pressed and folded into books or 'leafs'.  The majority of production should be done during winter months, due to the nature of the sounds: heat liquefies and putrefies the organs pretty quickly. Check out the images below to see the process of turning hake swim bladders into strips of isinglass.

I first encountered isinglass when I was researching at the Smithsonian Institution in the records for the International Fisheries Expositions. Similar to World's Fairs, these Expositions were divided by countries. Each country sent people and objects to an exposition in order to introduce their fishing culture to the wider world. More importantly, they sent a variety of products in order to interest merchants in trading in their particular goods.  For example, records show that America sent fishing boats and nets, harpoons, stuffed fishes and mammals, furs from seal rookeries, and jewelry and household objects made from aquatic resources. Tiffany & Co. sent pearl jewelry and a variety of bejeweled shells and corals.

This is the Fishing Exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, but it closely resembles the objects and arrangements at Fisheries Expositions during this period. 

In addition to all of these objects, the biggest displays often revolved around industrial products. America sent tons of canned and dried fish, prepared and preserved in the newest fashions for the widest audience. And, they sent isinglass.

When I entered the archives in Washington, D.C., I kept running across the word isinglass. I had no clue what the heck it was, but I knew that the US sent isinglass to the Berlin Fishery Exposition in 1880. Quality isinglass could be used for a variety of purposes, including as a fining agent, glue or cement, and for food (think jello but with a slightly fishy flavor). The best isinglass was made from sturgeon sounds in Russia and could be used for envelope and stamp glue, as a fining agent, or as a food. The cheapest, often made from fish species with less natural collagen in their sounds, was used for glue or heated and mixed with other products to form a rough cement.

The isinglass America sent to Berlin was probably made from hake, although by the early 20th century the US Fish Commission began pushing for the use of tile fish for public consumption- including in isinglass production (a whole other blog). As cod and hake stocks fell in the Atlantic, tilefish began to become more prevalent. In 1908, the USBF tested tilefish sounds in the production of isinglass and found that their collagen levels were as good or better than hake for isinglass production. While it might have been the case that they could have taken the place of hake in production, America eventually stopped producing most of its isinglass and imported most of it from other countries.  While we might have been proud of our isinglass production, America was never a large producer of the substance:

Russia was the largest producer of isinglass at the turn of the 20th century. Sturgeon sounds were considered the best swim bladder to produce isinglass- don't forget that sturgeon also produces caviar. So you might see why sturgeon are so endangered these days- producers of two very large Russia exports. Iceland also produced isinglass with cod sounds.

Isinglass was used for a variety of purposes throughout the 19th century, including envelope and stamp glue and even as a source of edible gelatin.  However, by the first decade of the 20th century, isinglass was mainly used to make glues, cements, and as a clarifying/fining agent for beer and wine.

Fining agents are substances used in alcohol making to produce a clearer liquid at the end of fermentation. Yeast and other particulates from the brewing process lead to an opaque liquid. If you wait long enough, the particulates will eventually settle, but brewers often utilize a variety of fining agents to clarify their liquids. Isinglass is one and another popular one is Irish Moss.

Irish Moss is negatively charged and binds to positively charged proteins in the beer mixture before it has been completely fermented. After beer and wine is finished fermenting, a fining such as isinglass is used: it is negatively changed and binds with positively charged yeast. Basically, both of these fining agents allow particulates to clump together and form large, heavy pieces that sink to the bottom of the fermenting vessel so that the liquid can be easily strained. Using this fining agents results in a clearer liquid.

The Food Babe is concerned that little work has been done to show if any isinglass material remains in the alcohol after the fining process. While little work has been done, E. Denis Baxter et al. state in their paper "Analysis of Isinglass Residues in Beer" in The Journal of the Institute of Brewing in 2007 that

The results of the study reported here confirm that the
concentration of residues remaining in beers fined with
isinglass is indeed very low. For many bottled and canned
beers, levels of isinglass are below the limit of quantification.
Slightly higher concentrations may be found in beers
in large containers such as kegs and casks, but even here
the maximum concentrations would be likely to remain
below 5 mg/litre. There is no evidence of significant stratification
of isinglass residues in the marketable beer in
such bulk containers.(134)

Obviously, many vegetarians and vegans are concerned that any animal products have been used in their food production, so the lack of isinglass in the finished product is meaningless if this is your concern. However, if your concern is allergic reaction to fish, suffice is to say that it would be very difficult to react to such a trace amount in the finished product. 

I have no side in the fight about beer labeling. Instead, I'm interested in the near invisibility of certain marine products in seemingly non-marine foods and products. Similar to the widespread use of seaweed in food products, isinglass is an important in the alcohol production process, yet many people know nothing about it. When we think of fishing, and harvesting from the ocean, we imagine fish and shellfish- whole organisms destined for human consumption in a restaurant. It isn't until we really understand how integral invisible marine products are to our daily lives that we can understand the impact that we have on the ocean. And in turn, the impact of our destruction of the marine ecosystem will have on the way we currently live. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Mermaid visions: the sexual politics of women and water

I have been thinking about a creature this summer: the mermaid. I've been spending a lot of time ruminating about this subject and it seems as if every time I have a handle on the nature of this cultural icon, I am presented with another story to analyze. There are so many sides to the mermaid that it is a slippery creature to study.

I picked up on the subject of the mermaid from Seanan McGuire's short story entitled "Each to Each" in the recently published "Women Destroy Science Fiction" special edition of the journal Lightspeed (Issue 49. June 2014- you should go read it now because it is that good). McGuire's narrative follows a female sailor in the US Navy, genetically and surgically enhanced with gills to explore and patrol America's national boundaries. Her story takes place in a not-too-distant future in which humans have abandoned our hope/dream of mining and colonizing distant planets and turned our attention to exploring and utilizing deep sea resources. Women, she suggests, were found to be better at working in the tight confines of deep sea submersibles (a hat tip to the breakdown of a gender barrier in the Navy: the ban on female sailors serving on submarines was lifted in 2011 in England and 2012 in the US; Female officers currently serve on 14 USNavy submarine crews. The USNavy will begin integrating enlisted women in 2016 with the hope that by 2020, 20% of submarine crews will be female). It was merely a step, the narrator states, to the creation of all-female crews. From there, the idea to keep the crews and ditch the boats lead to modifications and the navy mermaids (or mods) were created. 

McGuire's story is amazing, more so because it packs so many thought provoking elements into only a few pages. The narrator (who is in the process of conversion from dry sailor to mermaid) explains that the modified sailors serve two purposes for the Navy: they function as a tool to explore and patrol- they are sailors who value their duty. However, the Navy has also used them as symbols: both the future of exploration and national expansion and also as sex symbols. The mermaid modifications are made, not only with duty and work in mind, but also public perception: "mods" include not just gills, scales, and specialized eyes, but also breast implants and other cosmetic surgery meant to enhance the gendered profile of the mod (without the permission of the sailor). 

The mods ultimately find this sexualized and demeaning aspect of their job oppressing. In addition, the more modified they become, the less time they can spend on land, creating a desire to transition fully to an aquatic existence. At the end of the piece, the reader is left with a vision of mermaid mods "going native": a splinter group of militant mermaids recruits the Navy sailors to join them in living fully in the sea, away from national and sexualized concerns. 

What McGuire offers is a well-rounded examination of the traditional mermaid myth and its inherent complications. The mermaid is both feminized and bestial; she is both a sexual symbol for male sailors and a princess character for young girls, and also a vision of the evil and bestial nature of women. It is these opposing images that I would like to look at in this blogpost.

While there are mermen, it appears that this image has less weight and gender implications about the public perception of humans and the sea. A quick Google search shows no hits for "Jacques Cousteau merman." Michael Phelps has been photoshopped into a merman by Disney but I can't find any passing references to him swimming like a merman- even the copy for the Disney promotion says he is "part fish" not a merman, per se. 

This is different from the idea of women who explore and swim. They are commonly referred to as 'mermaids': A blog post about Sylvia Earle states, " Dr. Sylvia Earle is a mermaid. She became one when she was pushed down by a wave at the age of three." Female athletes such as Annette Kellerman and Diana Nyad are referred to as mermaids. Little girls want to be like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and books utilizing mermaids as strong figures for girls are still being written (The Mermaid and the Shoe- 2014). 

What this suggests to me is that a man who is aquatic or close to the sea might be associated with fish and maybe they swim "like a fish" but a female who is close to the ocean, who immerses themselves in this environment becomes something other than a human female in our minds: she is a mermaid. This need not have completely negative connotations, but it is something that can be explored because it points to ideas about women in nature and the dual roles of both earth goddess and beast that have plagued this relationship throughout time. 

Behind the shells: the strange case of the mermaid bra

One of the most interesting aspects of McGuire's piece is her focus on the politics of breasts for "mods". McGuire picks up on one of the most important aspects of the mermaid: her chest. 

Historians of science have talked about mermaids as interspecies: organisms or creatures that defy taxonomical categorization. Interspecies fall outside of conventional categories- human or fish- but because of our desire to categorize and order, we continuously seek to find a place for them. The mermaid is a difficult case (as is the merman) because, to put it bluntly, we aren't ever really offered an idea of how they reproduce. King Triton (Neptune, or any other name you want to call the king of the sea) has a billion daughters but we never meet a mother. How the heck does that happen? 

It would be much easier for us to place the mermaid into a category if we knew a bit more about their bits. Do they lay eggs and then fertilize them outside of the body (closer to fish) or do they internally fertilize, and if internal fertilization, are they oviparous (egg layers) or viviparous (live birth)? Without this knowledge, we are forced to look at other telling features of the mermaid to classify her.

The telling characteristic of every mermaid depiction, from the youngest to the oldest, is the shell bra and this might tell us something about where she can be put in taxonomical categories. Breasts are extremely important when we think about what type of animal something is. Mammary glands equal breast milk and mammals. Londa Schiebinger  has shown that the delineation of the category 'mammal' is intrinsically linked with the social and cultural history of the breast. Mammals feed their young with their breasts, so if you have breasts, you are probably a mammal. The breasts are so important because they are, in this case, a marker that tells the viewer that the mermaid is probably a mammal and closer to a human female than a fish. Interestingly, the merman has less of an identification, although they are often depicted as heavily muscled and therefore "masculine". However, muscles are much less a symbol of mammals and humanity than the breast and we are left feeling that mermen may be slightly fishy.  Because of her obvious mammalian possession of breasts, the mermaid is marked fair game for the male gaze: you aren't lusting after a fish, but something almost human. 

The breasts of the mermaid are intricately intertwined with her identity and the categorization of her as an organism close to human females. The sign of a mermaid is the upper body of a human female and sightings and reports of mermaids throughout history have called attention to breasts. The famous Feejee mermaid of 1854 was drawn with noticeable human breasts and Dr. R. Hamilton described a mermaid he had seen as having "protuberant breasts like a human woman"  and had "breasts that were as large as those of a woman."

A drawing of the original Feejee mermaid- note the breast material on the chest area.

McGuire is right to call attention to the role of breasts in allowing the objectification of this mythical creature by human males. It is through the recognition that mermaids are close to humans, marked by their possession of mammalian characteristics, that make it possible to see them as sex symbols.

Beautiful and Bestial

Cultural visions of the mermaid suggest that she is both beautiful and bestial: an organism that is closer to nature and animal than human, but can be made into a proper mate for a human male. The mermaid desires closeness with humanity, especially human males, but is inextricably linked to the sea. However, she is also physically malleable and able to be contained and changed. 

Splash- Daryl Hannah as a mermaid. (1984)

Lady Gaga as a mermaid- You and I (2011) 

Carolyn Merchant has written extensively on the understanding of women as bestial and the cultural and social perception that this closeness to nature means they need to be trained or domesticated. Jean Kilbourne has shown how minority women are often portrayed in the media as exotic beasts of prey closer to nature than civilization. The mermaid also contributes to this concept of women as bestial, but in an interesting way: it allows women to be closer to nature without being overly scary. Many mermaid figures are portrayed as delicate, beautiful, and exotic without the mammalian land characteristics that might make them unattractive to human males. Instead, they have all the characteristics of the creatures men prefer to keep in their aquariums. Captivity suits the mermaid in a way it might not the tigress. 

There is, of course, a scary side to mermaids. They were feared by sailors and other fishing communities. They have, in recent years, been shown as monsters. Joss Whedon used the merman as a particularly unattractive monster in his hit Cabin in the Woods (2012), although we never see the female counterpart we can imagine it is similar but, of course, has breasts almost as large as a human woman's. On the Canadian paranormal drama Lost Girl (Waves 4:10, 2014) mermaids are vicious creatures that bite off peoples' legs and use them to walk on land themselves. Interestingly, the television show Grimm (One Night Stand 3:4, 2013) depicts the entire mermaid culture and also seeks to answer the age old reproduction question by offering a new twist on the old tail/tale: mermen are sterile and mermaids must mate with human men to reproduce. This makes mermen extra vicious but it maintains the image of the traditional mermaid as a supplicant to human males and their virility. 

Joss Whedon's merman from Cabin in the Woods

However, the mermaid does not always stay on land. Even though the male gaze creates this creature, gives her an acceptable mammalian form and also requires her captivity and servitude, she (or the image of the mermaid) escapes this captive existence and stays wild. Daryl Hannah returns to the ocean and takes Tom Hanks with her- the wild female is worth turning wild. Lady Gaga's mermaid appears to have struck out alone instead of cleaving so closely to her capture/doctor/lover. Aquamarine becomes a symbol of freedom and growing up (okay, I won't go too far with the Aquamarine here because Disney hasn't really progressed that far in proving that mermaids can be feminist figures. But they are working on it?). In McGuire's piece the mermaid is literally created and sculpted by doctors (similar to Gaga mermaid) but she is anything but powerless. She is inadvertently given the tools needed to slip out of the net of sexuality and need meant to ensnare her for life. Her link with the ocean overcomes her link with humanity. 

Aquamarine (2008)

The mermaid is a complicated figure: she represents an image of women as bestial creatures that can be manipulated and controlled by men. The very taxonomical features that identify the mermaid are those that mark her as a beautiful possession. However, the creature is also a symbol of freedom and adventure that seems to resonate with young women- the ability to get beyond a simple understanding of oneself as weighed down by the sexual conventions of humanity- to be weightless and free and to swim beyond imposed male conventions of beauty and duty. 

It is this duality that has kept me thinking about this mythical creature all summer. I've been living a life dedicated to unpacking this creature and I'm not closer to doing so. What does one make of a creature that is both terrifyingly subservient to prurient alpha male notions of femininity and also a vehicle for women to enact fantasies of escape and empowerment beyond the masculine gaze? Only for me that it is a subject that requires more exploration because the image of the mermaid continues to be a powerful symbol of femininity in our culture. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

#foodgentrification: seafood, class, and culture

I have been absent from this blog for candycrush a good reason; I've been using my time wisely to finish my dissertation. I have, as of today, deposited it, so I'm back. I started writing this blog about a month ago, so forgive the ridiculously old references!

Last year, I wrote a blog about consumers' preoccupation with certain fish species. Species such as tuna, salmon, cod, and Chilean sea bass are coveted by people seeking "super foods" or the next popular and exotic item on the menu- but these species are also some of the most endangered. I ended that post by asking how educators and officials might work to emphasize the value of local, more abundant, but less coveted, fish species (this list would be different for every region).

I'd like to revisit my suggestion about raising awareness of locally abundant but less coveted species. I'm coming from two places with this blog: the place of class in fish consumption and how the elevation of local species might hurt traditional food cultures.

Last week About a month and a half ago, John Stewart and The Daily Show expressed outrage and indignation that media outlets considered the purchase of seafood, and particularly 'organic salmon' and 'crab legs,' too luxurious for people receiving public assistance (see the video below). I don't include this video for political purposes- make of Stewart's rant what you will- but instead, I found it interesting because it is neither new nor should it be surprising that seafood, and particularly certain forms of seafood, are culturally linked with luxury and class status. The more dear the product, for logistical or environmental reasons, the more luxurious.

Class is an interesting concept to talk about when discussing the consumption of fish and other sea products. Cultures and societies that have grown up around the water have traditionally developed their protein consumption habits around water-sourced foods. Because of the delicate and perishable nature of seafood, cultures of consumption were not necessarily high class. Yes, the wealthy got the first pick of the day's catch at its freshest- paying full price for the choicest products. But the leftovers did not go to waste. If a fishmonger wanted to unload the day's catch, he or she marked down the catch throughout the day, allowing the consumption of fish by every social class, not just the rich. Of course, buying fish is not the only way to get it; if you live near the water, chances are you can catch enough seafood to supplement your diet or for subsistence. In these two ways, all classes of people in watery regions have developed ways of eating local seafood. While preparations differ, the entire community relied on that source of protein.

But, this changed. How, you ask, did this change? Refrigeration.

With the rise of refrigeration, highly perishable seafood that previously could only be enjoyed close to its source, could be shipped further and further inland. It was still expensive, and the more perishable the product (cold water ocean fish being the first to spoil) the more status from eating it. With refrigeration, what was once a local staple became big business and most lower classes near the water were priced out of this protein source. The more in-demand the "fancy" fish became to upper class people inland, the more the lower classes near the shore were forced to make due with "trash" fish or by-catch that people inland were uninterested in consuming.

**This doesn't mean that poor people on the shore will eat just anything- food is always tied to culture and class. The crepidule (Atlantic slipper snail) is an invasive species threatening crops of oysters and mussels in France's Mont Saint-Michel Bay. The snail is apparently pretty tasty and super abundant but because of social perceptions of the snail as "a parasite," locals won't touch it. Instead, entrepreneurs in the area are trying to rebrand the snail as a delicacy in high-end Parisian restaurants- a bit of a reverse of the above process.**

This is basically where we are today. People both inland and on the shore who can afford to, purchase the most coveted and freshest sea food. The Lower classes' seafood diet is relegated to species that these higher classes deem inedible or unworthy. And even though innovations such as fish farming and flash freezing have rendered this layering of seafood consumption plastic, uncoupling species from the geographical area from which they come allowing poor and lower middle class people to consume more fish, the cultural perception of certain seafood as being "upper class" or even too good for lower class consumption persists. Even if a form of seafood is affordable to the lower classes (perhaps a sale before it goes bad- the traditional way that the lower classes have partaken of the most coveted products), it is still seen as consuming outside of their class boundaries.

But there is another part of this story. I started this post by pointing to a previous entry where I urged people to consider consuming the less-coveted fishes instead of the most highly coveted. The price of the most in demand has risen even higher recently as those fish stocks are destroyed by over consumption. I asked, why can't we start a campaign to get more people to eat catfish instead of salmon? Sounds good, right? But I'm rethinking my proposed plan after a recent twitter/blog conversation about "food gentrification."

The term "food gentrification" was coined in January of this year by Mikki Kendall, a blogger who writes about black feminist issues. Kendall points to a recent trend of upper class white consumers co opting or adopting traditionally lower class staples as the new "it" food. Soleil Ho at Bitch Magazine picked up Kendall's commentary and applied it to Whole Foods' new "Collards are the new Kale" campaign. Collard greens are a traditional poor Southern black food- a product deemed undesirable by upper classes that is a good source of fiber, protein, and vitamins for the lower classes.  According to Ho's followup post, the cost of this gentrification is exactly what Kendall hypothesizes- lower class families become priced out of their traditional food stuffs due to competition for higher class consumption.

The combination of Kendall and Ho's posts (and this newest post by Pilar Guevara about coconut in Ecuador) with the clip from the Daily Show I posted above have gotten me thinking about food gentrification and seafood consumption. In many ways, the rise of refrigeration allowed the gentrification of seafood. While there was and is always class involved in seafood consumption, the ability to ship certain desired species to markets drove up cost and priced locals out. No longer could lower classes get reduced price end-of-day products- the less desirable fish could just be frozen and package for the in-land consumer. 

Poor people have built cultures around less desirable species. And it's no surprise that these are the species that are not over fished or endangered. Smaller, lower class consider these sources of protein to be integral to their diet. Is it dangerous for me to push for a marketing shift to make these species seem desirable to the white upper classes? Would this cause another gentrification of fishes that could potentially lock out the lower classes from eating any seafood at all?

Add to this another concern, and one that should be highlighted: many communities that subsist on these undesirable species also seek to market them to the upper classes. The Southern catfish consuming community also produces catfish for the market. They would love to see higher consumption of their product in the United States, even if it priced out poor Southerners from their product (and they themselves are currently poor southerners). Is it paternalistic to want to block the gentrification of a fish like catfish, if it would possibly benefit communities of fish farmers throughout the South? Is it harsh to call the cooption of traditional lower class foods gentrification instead of success by local markets in selling a product?  How do we balance a knowledge of the destructive nature of food gentrification with the positive impact that this gentrification has on growing markets in these communities and the possible relief it might give to the stocks of overfished species?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on my concerns.

For more information on the #food gentrification, you can follow all the tweets about it here: 

For information on the history of seafood consumption and the culture of seafood consumption, here are a few papers I looked at before writing this blog: 

"Tales from Two Deltas: Catfish Fillets, High-Value Foods, and Globalization"
Dominique M. Duval-Diop and John R. Grimes Economic Geography, Vol. 81, No. 2 (Apr., 2005): 177-200.
- This article talks about the cultures in each area, and also the market competition between Vietnamese and Southern United States catfish farms. To read about the ongoing battle between American and Vietnamese catfish farmers for the lion's share of the American market, see the New York Times articles here, here, and here

"Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1930"
John K. Walton Journal of Social History, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1989): 243-266.

"Eating the Claws of Eden: Stone Crabs, Tourism, and the Taste of Conservation in Florida and
Nicolaas Mink The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 4 (Spring, 2008): 470-497.
- This is an interesting article about the association of food with place. 

"Loaves and Fishes: Food in Poor Households in Late Nineteenth-Century London"
Anna Davin History Workshop Journal, No. 41 (Spring, 1996): 167-192.

"Between Life Giver and Leisure: Identity Negotiation through Seafood in Turkey"
StÃ¥le Knudsen International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Aug., 2006): 395-415.
- I loved this article. It is particularly interesting because it looks at two cultures of fish consumption right on top of each other: one higher class and one lower.

Finally, the book Caviar: The Strange history and uncertain future of the world's most coveted delicacy by Inga Saffron is very interesting and fun (a good beach read). Caviar is the example of the rise of a seafood delicacy and Saffron shares her adventures with caviar eating in Russia after the fall of the USSR (apparently there was a robust black market that allowed the lower classes to eat the stuff by the spoonfull). The author also talks about the consequences of the over consumption of this delicacy- the near extinction of the sturgeon species that produces it. good book.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Blackfish: Cultural images of killer whales, their captivity, and Sea World

It seems inevitable that I would write a blog post on 'Blackfish'. There has been a lot of buzz around this (as of this post) Oscar-shortlisted documentary. The film, first released at the Sundance film festival in January 2013, has since been broadcast on CNN (its debut swept every demographic under the age of 55 watching TV on Oct. 24, 2013) and is available for live streaming on Netflix (having garnered over 600,000 views since December 13). I cannot remember a time when a documentary seemed so popular.

The film written and directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite details the life of a captive orca, Tilikum, and discusses the death of three humans that interacted with the killer whale-Keltie Byrne at Sealand in British Columbia and Dawn Brancheau at Sea World Orlando 'theme/amusement' parks and a man who apparently sneaked into the orca tank at Sea World after closing time. The director, Gabriela Cowperwaithe, theorizes (through her direction and through interviews) that Tilikum's aggressive behavior toward humans is caused by his captive condition.

There's a lot going on in the film and a lot that I could discuss. But I wanted to just talk about a few of the things I found interesting about the movie and the discussion about captivity and killer whales that the movie has prompted.

When reviewing depictions of orcas in the media, you might get the feeling that there are two separate species: Killer Whales and Orcas. I viewed Blackfish on Netflix when it became available, and immediately after I watched and rated it, Netflix offered me two more movies that I might be interested in: The Whale and Killer Whales. The first, a 2011 documentary produced and narrated by Ryan Reynolds, follows the tale of Luna, an orca that became separated from its pod and was adopted (with many social and political consequences) by a small town in British Columbia. Killer Whales is a 2010 documentary from the discovery channel detailing the natural history of the species. Both of these films are good examples of how the orcas image is split in the media.

In The Whale, orca are depicted as a gentle species with a strong family bond and a love of social interactions. Luna is separated from his pod and just wants people to pay attention to him; he wants and needs affection. There is an emphasis on explaining that orca have advanced social interactions, that they are an intellectually advanced species, and that they have an advanced form of communication, explained in the film as a sort of "regional accent". Even when Luna causes trouble (getting too close to boats, etc) he's depicted as just trying to snuggle. He wants friends! The friendly orca image was heightened by the movie Free Willy (1993). This cultural image of the orca appears to be similar to that of our image of dolphins- a smart, lovable creature that just wants to hang out with friends and play.

It's smiling because it's surrounded by food. So much food. 

Killer Whales is another depiction- of an incredibly smart apex predator. The description of the documentary states

"Highly social and highly deadly, orcas are the ocean's greatest predators--and far more dangerous than their Sea World training may suggest. This documentary explores the fierce behaviors of the killer whale in the wild."

The whole documentary basically consists of watching killer whales creatively hunt other animals.

While watching this, I was reminded of the book The Swarm by Frank Schatzing. The wildly popular science fiction book posits that a conscious "swarm" rallies ocean animals into fighting back against ocean-destroying humans. In the book, one of the most destructive forces is the orca. In one scene, a group of humpback whales tip over boats to knock humans into the water and the killer whales eat them. One particularly upsetting scene plays out a little something like this:

"He caught a glimpse of her head between two waves. A second woman was with her. The orcas had surrounded the upturned Zodiac and were closing in from both sides. Their shiny black heads cut through the waves, jaws parted to reveal rows of ivory teeth. In a few second they would be upon the women...She slid back into the water and the whales dived down behind her...The blue-green water parted as something shot up at incredible speed. Its jaws were open, exposing white teeth. Then they snapped shut and Stringer screamed. Her fist hammered on the snout that held her prisoner. 'Get off' she yelled." (130-131)

Needless to say, it doesn't.

In this cultural image of the orca, it is a killer- and potentially a human killer (although Schatzing mentions that this is aberrant behavior because a killer whaler has never attacked humans in the wild [130]). Unlike dolphins, which many people have pointed out as having too good of a cultural reputation, orcas' reputations seem to be a mix of awe and fear.

Cowperthwaithe highlights the extreme social identity of orcas in one of the most haunting episodes of Tilikum's history. The orca was captured as a two year old in Icelandic waters in 1983. Although she has no footage of his particular capture, the director shows footage of an orca captured in Washington State in the 1970s (before the state stopped allowing Sea World to take orca in their waters). She interviews a fisherman who helped capture orca in Washington and he states that after the baby orca was captured and penned, the rest of the pod stayed nearby and called to it. He says that watching their behavior, he realized how horrible it was to separate these calves from their parents.

But the movie doesn't only highlight the cuddly traits of the species. The director also notes the bullying behavior of the whales. Tilikum was apparently repeatedly bullied by the females at Sea World. In the wild, orcas "rake" each other with their teeth and get into fights to establish social hierarchy and apparently this occurred in the small pens of Sea World (it is a matriachal society but male on female aggression during mating is very common as well- something it seems the director fails to mention).

All in all, the film maker does make the choice to highlight the loving and caring nature of orcas over their aggressiveness (with each other and towards other organisms and humans). Cowperthwaithe points to Tilikum's personal narrative, being ripped from his family unit at a young age, kept in dark isolation in his first water park, constant bullying from females, and social deprivation at Sea World, as the reason for his aggressiveness. But I wonder if focusing on Tilikum's story does take too much attention from the overall behavior of killer whales as aggressive for other reasons besides captivity?

Tilikum is not the only orca to be involved in accidents with trainers and it appears there is a pattern.

At Sealand, where Tilikum was penned with two pregnant females, a female trainer (Keltie Byrne) was drowned. Sea World purchased Tilikum shortly after the incident and assured trainers that they believed that there was no reason to worry- the accident was caused by the female orcas. Of course, what makes this assertion ridiculous is that they could not have been too worried about the other females because both Haida II and Nootka IV were bought by Sea World as well. Haida went to San Antonio and Nootka to Orlando. It does appear that Sea World may have believed the females were especially aggressive during this time because of their pregnancies, but in the end it appears that many believed that the whales were not being aggressive but merely playful.

The movie also highlights another attack: the death of Alexis Martinez at Loro Parque in the Canary Islands. Interestingly, Cowperthwaith doesn't follow up this story with any information about the whale that killed Martinez either. The bull whale, named Keto, was born at Sea World Orlando in 1995 and is described online as a "punk." At 3.5 years old he was transferred to San Diego to try to correct his behavioral issues, but still showed aggression towards other whales. After 9 months in San Diego, he was sent to Ohio and then to San Antonio. That's 4 water parks in 7 years- for an animal that supposedly needs a strong family environment and had already shown aggressive tendencies that seems like quite a misstep. He was sent to Loro Parque to perform and also to hopefully mate with the two females sent from Sea World San Antonio.

Keto had been aggressive around other males because of mate choice in the past, and it appears he was at Loro Parque as well. In Tim Zimmerman's article "Blood in the Water" in Outsider Magazine, he quotes a journal kept by Martinez, in which he notes the "complicated sexual dynamics in the pools, which also affected the stability of the killer whale grouping."

"Keto is obsessed with controlling Kohana, he won't separate from her, including shows," he wrote. "Tekoa is very sexual when he is alone with Kohana (penis out). Keto is sexual with Tekoa." On September  2, 2009, without elaborating, he noted that "Brian [Rokeach, SeaWorld's supervising trainer at Loro Parque at the time] had a small incident with Keto the first hour of the morning," and that is was "a very bad day for Keto." On September 12, he wrote, "All the animals are bad. Dry day for Kohana."

Martinez was killed by Keto Dec. 9, 2009. You can read Zimmerman's full articles about both Martinez's death and Dawn Brancheau's here and here.

On, in 2004, Ky (the offspring of Tilikum and Haida II when they were at Sealand) attacked his trainer at Sea World San Antonio. The bull male pulled his trainer into the water and tried to bite. This incident was chalked up to "raging hormones."

Finally, in 2006, Kasatka, the dominant female at Sea World San Diego, attacked her trainer Ken Peters and held him underwater intermittently for 9 minutes (see video below). It seems that the attack was prompted by the distress vocals being emitted by her offspring Kalia in a neighboring tank. However, it appears that Kasatka had also shown aggressive behavior towards trainers in the past.

For more information on issues between trainers and whales, see this article on an attack by Kastka and Orky and Orky's past attacks on trainers at Marineland in California.

In all of these cases of attack, it appears that the one thing in common is that these animals show aggression towards trainers during sexually charged periods (adolescence, breeding, pregnancy, and parenthood). Some experts have suggested that Tilikum's frequent breeding and mating could have been a contributing factor in his attack on Dawn Brancheau. While few studies have been done on orcas and aggression during mating, extreme aggression in mating has been observed in dolphins and other whale species.

If these animals are particularly aggressive due to mating issues, it raises a huge concern for training and working with these animals closely at Sea World because they are used, in addition to their entertainment quality, mainly as breeding species.

In 1972, the United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibited the capture and trade of marine mammals. The Act did allow for permits to be granted for scientific purposes or for entertainment purposes, but the combination of more stringent Endangered Species Act (1973) and the MMPA meant that most marine cetaceans would be off limits to marine parks. While the orca is not considered endangered (it is actually labeled as having deficient information for making that claim) the pods that live on the Northeastern Coast of the US are labeled endangered (as of 2005) and therefore they can no longer be collected by marine parks (for information on the MMPA and how it changed scientific research on marine mammals see Etienne Benson's article here and the actual act here). Long before this, however, Sea World was prohibited from collecting in this region after it was discovered they were utilizing dynamite to herd the animals into inlets for capture and that many members of pods were being killed due to this practice. The deaths were being covered up by opening the whales, placing rocks in their stomachs, and sinking them. After they were banned from collecting in Washington (and after a failed petition to the Alaska government to collect 100 whales in the 1980s), Sea World was forced to collect their animals from Iceland. Keiko, the orca in Free Willy was captured in Icelandic waters in 1979, Kasatka in 1978, Tilicum in 1982, Haida II, Nootka IV, and Freya in 1982. But pressure to stop the captures in Iceland became more intense and by the early 1990s the minister of fisheries in Iceland appeared to be issuing fewer and fewer permits for capture. The other place to get captured orca is Japan, but Taiji fisherman responsible for the captures have been called into question because of the horrendous slaughter and most parks would rather not associate themselves with this practice. Even Japanese water parks would rather pay the import fee and purchase orca from Iceland than buy fro the Taiji (their methods are detailed in the movie The Cove).

What all of this means is that in order to continue their franchise, breeding orca is much easier than capturing wild species to replace those who die in captivity (which is a lot of whale death). Tilikum, Ky, and Keto are all bull whales that have naturally and artificially inseminated female orcas in captivity. When the females do not naturally breed with males, they are artificially inseminated (Kasatka was the first successful artificial insemination with Tilikum's sperm in 2001, giving birth to Nakai).

What is also means is that, while breeding might be the most dangerous time for trainers to work with these creatures, it is the most desired condition for these animals at Sea World. Sea World might be able to decrease the danger if they separated females during estrus, pregnancy, and early motherhood. They could also separate the females from males during these periods so that they did not mate at all. But, this is not Sea World's goal. In fact, they have spent a lot of money and research trying to figure out how to tell when a female is fertile so that they could put males and females together to promote natural fertilization so that artificial insemination is not needed.

Although the park often points to working to reproduce these species for conservation, this argument does not work well with orca. The authors of a paper on orca breeding research (three of whom work at SeaWorld San Antonio, Orlando, ad San Diego) state that killer whales are one of the few marine mammals that are ubiquitous to ocean habitats around the globe.

"Despite their prevalence in the wild, the worldwide captive population of killer whales comprises less than 48 animals. The captive population is limited further by the size and space requirements of the species, resulting in the formation of numerous, small genetically isolated groups. Despite this fractionated population, improved understanding of the environmental and social requirements of killer whales has led to successful natural breeding. Since 1985, when the first successful birth and rearing of killer whales occurred, approximately 26 births have followed at six facilities. As a result more than half the present population (26/48) has been born in captivity, including second generations." (for the entire article, go here)

The purpose of the breeding program at SeaWorld is to breed more whales for SeaWorld. That's it. But it appears they might be putting their trainers in danger to accomplish this goal.

One problem that I had with the movie involved the issue of breeding. Tilikum's breeding chart (below) is utilized in the movie to suggest that his aggressive tendencies have been bred into a great many calves in Sea World's family (he's sired 21 calves and 11 remain living).

My concern with utilizing this chart is that the director isn't particularly clear about her concerns regarding Tilikum's breeding. It appears that the director and the respondents in the film are suggesting that Tilicum has a genetic predisposition to aggression and that this aggression is being genetically passed to his offspring. Unfortunately, the director does a bad job of clarifying what this means and so it seems fairly easy to poke holes in this "chart of aggression" based on other claims she makes. 

If the director is suggesting that Tilikum is naturally more aggressive than other whales, and that this is a trait that can be bred into his offspring, then it might be easy to suggest that his aggression is individual- a fluke (no pun intended). It appears that one of the former trainers interviewed in the movie tries to make this claim- Tilikum is an especially bad whale. 

But I don't think the director means to boil everything down to genetics. I think she wants to suggest that Tilikum has naturally aggressive tendencies (that might be genetically linked) that mean that in the captive environment he is especially susceptible to displaying aggression. If he passes the genetics that make him susceptible to his offspring, they too will show violent tendencies. This is a much better argument, but it also seems weak to me. 

If Tilikum's offspring fail to show aggression, does that mean they got their mother's genes in this department? What about Tilikum and Kasatka's offspring Ky? Where did his aggression come from - his mother or his father? Appealing to genetic arguments is concerning. If you think aggression is heritable, then Tilikum is merely a bad seed. If you think it is a combination of nature and nuture, then you might be able to make the case that all of Tilikum's offspring were born in captivity and therefore have had a very different life than he has, meaning that the same stressors he experienced have been alleviated in his calves (although you could also make the case that they are almost the same given that most calves born in captivity are eventually taken from their mothers and placed in tanks at another theme park).  

I would much rather the director have made the movie less about the aggressive behavior of one whale and suggested that most killer whales in captivity have the capacity, especially during times of mating, to display aggressive behavior. This trait does not need to be genetically heritable, it is indicative of the species not of the individual specimen. While it does appear as if she tries to do this by mentioning the incidents with Keto and Kasatka, she could have gone further. 

Sea World:

Blackfish was a movie about Tilikum, but in many ways it is largely an indictment of Sea World. While Sea World bills itself as a learning institution, Susan Davis in her book Spectacular Nature has written that Sea World is actually a theme park where the theme is "science". Davis believes that there is little to no educational value to these institutions and it would seem that Cowperwaith might agree. In the film, she catches tour guides giving false information about the natural history of orcas, stating that they live much longer in captivity than in the wild. If Sea World must skew natural information to make their animals appear more healthy, how can they be trusted as an educational institution?

I am torn about these institutions. I did visit Sea World Orlando as a child, and it is a place that is largely responsible for my childhood compassion for sea creatures. I'm from the midwest and if it weren't for that park I would not have seen a whale or dolphin close-up. However, some would argue that advances in underwater filming and the prevalence of film can do as much for educating the public as these institutions can. In any case, I couldn't afford to see the whale show and I can't imagine that the performances could do more for the public's understanding of whales than merely seeing them in tanks does. How does a performing animal cause compassion?

The issue with Tilicum and Blackfish has been a nightmare for the parks- prompting protests of SeaWorld floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and at the Rose Bowl Parade in California. Their stock is down from its initial offering, but this could be due to low attendance due to a new price hike although some people have suggested the movie has hurt attendance as well. Many performers, including Trace Adkins, have cancelled shows at Sea World amid the fallout from the film.   In addition, many are calling for the release of Tillicum to a sea tank and the cessation of his breeding program.

Unfortunately, many people don't understand that he is no longer releasable to the ocean. In the most dramatic case of public pressure to release a captive orca, Keiko, who played Willy in Free Willy, became the center of a firestorm about releasing these animals back into the wild. Over a number of years, biologists and trainers sought to rehabilitate Keiko and teach him to hunt in the wild. Because he had spent so much time in a small tank, Keiko did not even have to ability to hold his breath as long as wild orca. Eventually, after an enormous amount of money was thrown at the problem, Keiko was released, only to continuously appear near civilization. He died of pneumonia in 2003 after failing to reintegrate into the wild.

There's a great video about his here:

Freeing Tilicum would mean putting him in a sea pen for the remainder of his life (although he's in isolation right now so anything would probably be better). But this might be better for him and Sea World trainers.

Whatever happens to this particular whale, it seems more important that people understand that aggressive behavior by these animals is not an isolated event and that Sea World is not "saving" these animals by breeding them. There is no reason that Sea World should propagate these organisms other than to continue to run this franchise (it appears that the majority of scientific findings about these whales leads directly to understanding their mating and how to breed them).

I'm interested to hear others' takes on this film, what they took away from it, and if it changed their concept of Sea World.  Is the market going to take care of this issue when people stop going to Sea World because of these exposes? or Should Sea World be forced to stop their breeding program and retire their whales regardless of the market and the robustness of their business?

For me, I would be more interested in seeing activists trying to make changes to the MMPA than focusing on one whale's release. If it is illegal to harass these creatures in the wild and we value them enough to protect them in their natural habitat, we should work to protect them in captivity. I'm not sure that Sea World could prove that their small contributions to understanding these organisms outweighs the stress that the organisms are subjected to in captivity. What do you think?