Canada to ban keeping whales, dolphins in captivity

Animal welfare advocates are celebrating after the House of Commons voted Monday to ban keeping whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity — in a move with long-term consequences for Canadian marine parks.

Bill S-203, known as the Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act, passed a third reading in the House of Commons Monday, more than three years after it was introduced in December 2015.

The bill bans keeping and breeding cetaceans — including whales, dolphins and porpoises — through amendments to the Criminal Code, and would levy fines to lawbreakers of up to $200,000.

Whales and dolphins that are already in captivity will be grandfathered in by the bill, meaning parks can keep all the animals they currently own.

The bill also restricts importing and exporting these animals, and bans making them perform for entertainment.

The move aligns Canada with a growing list of countries that are endeavouring to ban cetaceans in captivity, said Rebecca Aldworth, executive director of the Canadian chapter of Humane Society International.

This is “a victory for all Canadians who want this to be a more humane country,” said Aldworth, whose organization was among a coalition of marine scientists and organizations backing the bill. Advocates had long argued that keeping these highly intelligent creatures in tanks is cruel. This is disputed by some marine park operators

Impact on Marineland

Monday’s vote notably impacts Marineland, the Niagara Falls amusement park and zoo that is considered the last Canadian park committed to keeping cetaceans in captivity. Marineland owns about 61 of these animals, according to previously reported data — 55 beluga whales, five bottlenose dolphins and one orca, or “killer whale.”

The Vancouver Aquarium has just one dolphin left, advocacy groups say, but in January announced it would no longer hold whales and dolphins in captivity.

Marineland had strongly opposed to the bill, previously saying it would devastate attendance and threaten conservation efforts at parks where these animals are on display. The park has also said the bill jeopardizes seasonal employment for hundreds of local residents during the summer months.

Sen. Murray Sinclair, the former judge who helped usher the bill through Parliament, previously said that Marineland has enough beluga whales already to likely continue for another 30 years, “so no jobs are going to be lost as a result of this in the immediate future.”

Despite the grandfathering, Phil Demers, a former Marineland trainer-turned activist, called it a “historic day for Canada.” Demers has spoken out about his time at Marineland, and says keeping mammals in captivity is abusive.

“This is validation for all the concerns that … former Marineland employees and activists alike have been stressing for many decades,” said Demers, who has been involved with Bill S-203 since the start.

Marineland ‘confident’ it remains compliant

In a statement Monday, Marineland Canada said it complies with “all aspects” of the bill.

“Bill S-203 does not impair the operations of Marineland. Marineland will continue to provide world-class care to all of its animals,” the park said in an email.

Marineland said the bill indicates that cetaceans living in the park do “not amount to animal cruelty, despite the allegations of uninformed, professional activists.”

The bill exempts the whales currently at Marineland and it “recognizes the educational role of Marineland by prohibiting entertainment only shows while continuing to permit Marineland’s Educational Presentations,” the park said.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said Marineland is misinterpreting the legislation, which “very clearly” says that keeping cetaceans in captivity is animal cruelty. May, along with other advocates, hopes that whales currently living in captivity can eventually move to sanctuaries.

May sponsored Bill S-203, which was was first introduced by now-retired Liberal Sen. Wilfred Moore in December 2015. The bill cleared the Senate last October — where it faced resistance from some Conservative senators — after nearly three years of debate and study. It passed the Commons fisheries committee in April.

This bill would never have passed without thousands of Canadians’ support, said May, with many people writing letters and emails. She called the bill a “non-partisan” effort.

The bill has exceptions: cetaceans can be kept in captivity if they’re receiving care or rehabilitation after an injury, or for scientific research.

S-203 also puts restrictions on possessing reproductive materials, including cetacean sperm or an embryo.

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