Canada has banned the practice of keeping dolphins, whales and porpoises in captivity after a long-fought for piece of legislation passed resoundingly on Monday.
The “Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act,” which was first introduced in 2015, outlaws the practice, as well as the trade, possession, capture and breeding of cetaceans.
The measure, which passed by a wide margin in the House of Commons on Monday, had been championed by animal rights groups like the Humane Society International, Animal Justice, the Whale Sanctuary Project and others. It was passed previously by the country’s Senate.
“The passage of Bill S-203 is a watershed moment in the protection of marine animals and a victory for all Canadians,” Rebecca Aldworth, the executive director of the Humane Society International/Canada, said in a statement. “Whales and dolphins don’t belong in tanks, and the inherent suffering these highly social and intelligent animals endure in intensive confinement can no longer be tolerated.”
Orcas, dolphins and other cetaceans have made for popular attractions at some aquatic theme parks for decades, but their presence has raised concerns about the ethics of confining whales for the purposes of human entertainment.
Lori Marino, the president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, noted that whales are “among the most cognitively complex of all animals,” in a statement about the bill’s passage.
“Confining them to life in a concrete tank is truly unbearable for them,” she said.
These type of concerns swelled in the wake of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish,” which traced the life of a male orca named Tilikum from his capture at the age of 2 in the early 1980s to the three human deaths he was connected to. SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum in front of a live audience at SeaWorld in Orlando in 2010.
But the documentary presented a largely empathetic portrait of these whales, examining the psychological harm they likely endured having been captured in the wild, separated from their families, and then kept in close confines at various aquatic parks. More than 60 million people saw the documentary.
SeaWorld, which was a focus of the documentary, was sharply critical of the production, but it eventually agreed to a series of concessions as criticism of its treatment of whales continued.
In 2016, the company, which at the time had 29 orcas at its parks in San Diego; Orlando, Florida; San Antonio; and in Spain’s Canary Islands, agreed to stop breeding the animals and phase out their use at its parks.
Similar bills about keeping whales in captivity have circulated in the United States.
In 2015, the California Coastal Commission banned the breeding of orcas in captivity. And Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has proposed a similar federal law about orcas.
In Canada, there are two facilities that currently cetaceans: Marineland, in Ontario, which has more than 50 beluga whales according to CTV News, and the Vancouver Aquarium, which has one dolphin. Both will be allowed to keep the animals as long as they don’t breed more. CTV News reported that Marineland officials are wondering whether the current pregnancies of some of the belugas in their facility will cause problems after the mothers give birth later this summer, given the bill’s passage.
Hal Whitehead, a biology professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and an expert on whales in the wild, testified in front of Canada’s lawmakers in support of the ban. He told The Washington Post that he did not believe that keeping whales in captivity was ethical.
“The environment in captivity is so utterly different from that in the wild in a number of ways which appear to be very meaningful to the animals,” Whitehead said.
He said that orcas in the wild can swim lengths of 30-60 miles a day; their home range might be some 600 miles. But this habitat is reduced to a concrete tank in captivity, reducing a vast expansive range into a holding pen.
Orcas are social animals too, he said, forming societies along matrilineal lines. But those processes are disrupted in captivity, he said.
“The conditions are so different from what we’d consider to be normal conditions of life for these animals that I don’t think it’s ethical to keep them in captivity,” he said.