Free Willy (But Still Save the Whales)

Breaking news to report to our loyal SeaLuxe readers: The Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans was successful in advancing Bill S-203 at the House of Commons today. Bill S-203 is an act to end the captivity of whales and dolphins for entertainment and displaying purposes. The bill will, however, still allow for legitimate scientific research and rescue efforts of cetaceans (we’re still following this story as news of the bill’s advancement said there were no amendments yet marine scientists were asking for amendments so the bill wouldn’t interfere with scientific research).

The committee reportedly received more than 9,000 emails and phone calls from concerned Canadians over the weekend alone. We’re so happy people want to see these marine mammals where they belong – in the ocean.

“This bill was a long time coming,” said Barbara Cartwright, CEO of Humane Canada via press release. “The scientific evidence has proven that cetaceans don’t thrive in captivity. Moreover, we as Canadians have a moral obligation to phase out the keeping of these intelligent creatures all for the purpose of public entertainment.”

The “Free Willy” bill was introduced by now-retired Senator Wilfred Moore with the backing of Green Party Leader Elizabeth May. It has faced several challenges since 2015 with its biggest opponents being Niagara Falls’ Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium.

Marineland’s argument was based on the fact that dropping attendance would mean their conservation efforts would be threatened. It also said the bill threatens employment of hundreds of local residents during the summer months. Marineland said the bill is based on emotions, not science.

“The bill and the debate around it (have) been highly emotional, lacking in fact-based or science-based analysis and mired in unnecessary conflict incited by radical animal rights groups from the United States,” according to a statement issued by Marineland.

The Vancouver Aquarium’s argument, however, is more complex. The city’s aquarium is home to one of the longest-running killer whale research studies on the planet. This has translated into five decades of knowledge that has made the aquarium’s staff of marine scientists an invaluable resource in providing support to Fisheries and Oceans Canada on emergent cetacean rescues.

Clint Wright, chief operating officer of Ocean Wise, which includes the Vancouver Aquarium, told the House two weeks ago that “it has been nearly 30 years since the last wild-caught cetacean was brought to Vancouver, a practice that no longer exists at accredited facilities in North America.”

Wright’s concerns about the bill are centered around conservation. In the event of a cetacean rescue, the aquarium’s marine mammal rescue centre would require provincial approval from the lieutenant governor and other provincial bodies before moving forward. “Time is of the essence in these scenarios, and often these rescues take place in front of the public. We’ve learned through experience that added delays are problematic,” Wright said.

He also pointed out that there is no provincial legislation in B.C. therefore a provincial cabinet would not be able to provide authorization or delegate the required authority if the bill passes without amendments. Wright also said that the bill as it stands, “does not adequately provide for the protection and care of endangered species and populations.”

Using the southern resident killer whales and the St. Lawrence estuary belugas as examples of species that may need extraordinary measures in order to be saved, Wright said he’d like the bill to include an exception for ex situ conservation programs.

“It’s impossible to predict what the future will hold, but based on recent history, there is a growing heed for this work,” he said. “I urge this committee to consider amendments to Bill S-203 so that this critical work can continue now and into the future.”

If the bill passes third reading at the House of Commons, it will become law. For more information on the importance of research read “A Ban on Captive Animals could Speed Up Extinction.”