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A n ocean away from here in Monterey Bay, Calif., aquarium officials last week freed a great white shark they had held captive for more than six months, a record for the much-mythologized species. While the creature’s release was hailed by animal rights activists, the fact that she had been held at all has added fuel to the long-running debate over the treatment of large marine mammals — a debate that often focuses on Japan.

This particular shark was captured accidentally, snagged in a fishing net last August. But Monterey Bay Aquarium officials were on the scene within an hour and were able to transport the young female first to an ocean pen for acclimation and then to a large exhibit at its main facility. Reportedly, unlike most captive sharks, this specimen ate and grew during her months at the aquarium. She was released Thursday after she began hunting other marine creatures in her tank.

Officials were upbeat last week about the benefits of the great white shark’s stay, emphasizing how much data they had gathered about the behavioral habits of the elusive species, as well as the benefit to the species of showing nearly a million visitors that it was not a monster but “a beautiful animal.”

Shark experts acknowledged last week that the aquarium had behaved responsibly by not turning the creature’s capture into a circus and releasing her as soon as she grew too big and aggressive. Nevertheless, many said there was no upside to holding any large marine mammals captive, deriding the supposed educational value of the practice and suggesting the main motive was simply to bring in money.

Here in Japan, many aquariums continue to hold and exhibit cetaceans; the widely criticized swim-with-a-dolphin programs remain popular; and the brutal “captivity industry” that sends marine mammals to facilities worldwide is flourishing. It would be salutary if the debate over the young white shark in California helped revive and sustain awareness that these large, intelligent creatures belong in the wild, not cooped up in tanks and pens to satisfy human beings’ idle curiosity.

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