The Canadian government has passed Bill S-203, nicknamed the “Free Willy Bill’, which prohibits whales and dolphins (cetaceans), from being held in captivity. The bill also bans captive breeding and possession of cetacean reproductive materials, including sperm and embryos. Violators of the bill face fines of up to $200,000. S-203 now only requires royal assent to become law.
World Animal Protection, an international non-for profit organization dedicated to animal welfare, was part of the movement to pass Bill S-203. It jointly produced a report with the Animal Welfare Institute, ‘The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity’, authored by marine biologists Dr. Naomi Rose and Dr. Chris Parson. The report, which provided scientific and ethical arguments against marine mammal captivity for public display, was delivered to every Member of Parliament. Other organizations that campaigned to pass Bill S-203 included Humane Canada, Animal Justice, Humane Society International/Canada, and Ontario Captive Animal Watch.
Asked why whales and dolphins are ill-suited to life in captivity, campaign director for World Animal Protection Melissa Matlow says: “Whales and dolphins are very social and intelligent animals that travel vast distances of up to 160 km/day at speeds of 50 km/hour. It is cruel to keep these wide ranging, deep-diving predators in small, barren, shallow tanks that completely restrict their natural movements and behaviours. Even the largest aquarium in the world is less than one percent of their natural range.”
An amendment to the bill allows the import and export of living cetaceans, or sperm, embryos, and tissue culture for scientific research. The amendment also permits cetaceans to be kept in captivity for rehabilitation purposes. Clint Wright, Executive Vice President & COO of Vancouver Aquarium, an Ocean Wise initiative, provided a statement saying, “We are heartened to see measures put in place to allow cetacean rescue efforts, as deemed necessary by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. For more than 50 years, Vancouver Aquarium has led Canada’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, a first response team on standby to rescue stranded, severely injured or sick whales, dolphins and porpoises. The goal of every rescue is to rehabilitate and release the animal back into the wild and the process is carefully regulated by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.”
The bill does not address other marine mammals in captivity, including seals, sea lions, and walruses. World Animal Protection’s report argued against keeping any marine mammals in tanks. Matlow says seals and walruses “are also very social and intelligent animals that cover vast distances. They suffer physically from painful skin and irritations from the chlorinated water and psychologically from not being able to behave naturally.”
And so, while Bill S-203 is set to become law, World Animal Protection’s campaign to protect marine mammal welfare continues. “Our next move is to encourage Canadian-based travel companies to stop selling or promoting tickets to places that keep whales and dolphins in tanks,” Matlow says. “If it is unacceptable in Canada, it shouldn’t be in their supply chain. The best place to see a whale or dolphin in the wild is from a respectful distance. Whale watch tours are more ethical, educational, and incentivize protecting the animal in the wild.”