Keeping whales and dolphins in captivity becoming obsolete

Bill S-203 is 'groundbreaking legislation' that would protect whales, dolphins, and porpoises from a 'lifetime of deprivation in captivity,' and position Canada as a global leader in whale and dolphin protection, writes Camille Labchuk.

A bill currently under consideration by the Senate, S-203, would bar whale and dolphin captivity across Canada. Photograph courtesy of Christopher Michel

PUBLISHED :Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 11:15 AM

Keeping whales and dolphins in captivity is rapidly becoming obsolete around the world, and Canada is no exception. The Senate Fisheries Committee is currently studying Bill S-203, groundbreaking legislation that would protect whales, dolphins, and porpoises from a lifetime of deprivation in captivity. Our country now has an exciting opportunity to become a global leader in whale and dolphin protection.

Many of the world’s leading cetacean experts testified before the Senate committee, and their evidence provided a glimpse of the heartbreaking physical and psychological trauma that cetaceans endure while confined in concrete tanks for human entertainment.

In the wild, orcas, belugas, and dolphins travel vast distances, dive deep in search of food, and engage in cooperative hunting strategies. Cetaceans have astonishingly complex social structures and communication. Their natural ocean environment is rich, stimulating, and spacious—the complete opposite of what they experience in concrete tanks. It’s no surprise that cetaceans in aquariums show signs of boredom, loneliness, and depression. They frequently display repetitive, stereotypical behaviours like swimming in circles—often considered by experts to be a sign of severe psychological disturbance. Their lives are shorter and impoverished, compared to their wild counterparts.

Only two facilities in Canada still support whale captivity—Marineland in Niagara Falls, and the Vancouver Aquarium. But provincial and municipal legislators are also cracking down on putting whales in tanks. The last two belugas at the Vancouver Aquarium died late last year of unknown causes, prompting the Vancouver Park Board to pass a ban on bringing in new cetaceans, breeding the existing ones, and forcing them to perform. Meanwhile, the province of Ontario banned keeping orcas in 2015. France, California, India, Chile, Costa Rica, and half a dozen other countries also restrict or ban whale and dolphin captivity. Every year, the list grows longer.


Unsurprisingly, Bill S-203 has attracted broad public support. Its sponsor is Senator Murray Sinclair, along with Green leader Elizabeth May. David Suzuki, marine scientists, Coastal First Nations, and animal protection organizations all endorse the legislation. Bill S-203 also dovetails well with the potential for Canada to be home to the world’s first open-water whale sanctuary. The Whale Sanctuary Project is considering coastal sites in British Columbia and Nova Scotia for this landmark refuge for cetaceans rescued from captivity. You can bet that passing Bill S-203 would make Canada even more attractive for this tremendous opportunity.

So who would oppose these reasonable protections for whales and dolphins?

Strangely, Conservative Senate Whip Don Plett has made it his mission to deep six the bill. After extraordinary but failed attempts to kill the bill at second reading, he is now maneuvering to sink it at the committee stage. It’s hard to understand this bizarre opposition to helping whales and dolphins, but it’s past time for Conservative leader Andrew Scheer to step in and put a halt to Plett’s tactics.

Of course, Sen. Plett isn’t acting alone. He’s in close contact with the aquarium industry, which profits from displaying captive whales and wants to protect that income source.


The aquarium industry markets itself as benevolent, hiding behind feel-good buzzwords like ‘education’ and ‘conservation’. Don’t be fooled. Whales and dolphins aren’t kept in aquariums to protect them; they’re kept to make money. Claims to the contrary are largely window-dressing, designed to make the public feel better about a morally questionable practice that many of us now find deeply unsettling.

The truth is, confining whales and dolphins in tanks is an outdated practice that no longer reflects social norms. Bill S-203 is significant because it takes those social norms and enshrines them into a clear, enforceable law.

Television, smart phones, whale watching, and even virtual reality offer us a much richer and more compelling way to experience whales and understand their complex lives. It’s time for Parliament to pave the way to a more compassionate future for animals by passing Bill S-203.

Camille Labchuk is a lawyer and executive director of Animal Justice, a national animal law advocacy organization.



The Hill Times