Today, after a two-decade wait, we celebrate the release of a proposed federal rule from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve standards for the handling, care, and housing of captive marine mammals, mainly at aquariums and marine parks. It is an important animal welfare step, at a time when the nation is questioning more than ever if cetaceans should be put on display at all in captive environments at for-profit ventures.
Since the documentary Blackfish came out in 2013, the public has gained a new understanding of the consequences of long-term confinement of captive orcas, as well as the original actions that led to their captivity. Americans today no longer want business as usual and are seeking better conditions for animals, no more breeding of orcas and other marine mammals in captivity, and no wild capture of any cetaceans. In October last year, the California Coastal Commission approved SeaWorld’s plan to expand its San Diego orca pools on the condition that SeaWorld doesn’t breed any more orcas at its facility and doesn’t transfer or import any orcas in and out of the facility. In November, SeaWorld – as a sign of its recognition that the culture has moved decidedly in an animal protection direction — announced that its San Diego facility will be phasing out the stunt-filled, theatrical orca shows for which the company is known.
In one specific provision within the rule released today, the USDA will resume its oversight of programs, like “swim-with-the-dolphins,” in which humans swim with captive dolphins. Interactive programs like these have carried on with no federal oversight for over 15 years since the USDA suspended its enforcement efforts in 1999. We applaud this step because these interactive programs present significant risk to the health and wellbeing of the animals as well as to humans.
I want to thank our allies on Capitol Hill who worked diligently to raise awareness about captive marine mammal issues and to advocate for new standards. Reps. Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Adam Schiff (D-CA), along with 38 other lawmakers, sent a letter in May 2014, urging USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to release these updated standards on marine mammals. This year, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) offered an amendment directing the USDA to issue updated standards for captive marine mammals. In July, Senators Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Reps Huffman (D-CA) and Schiff (D-CA) called on the Obama Administration to act on this rule and finish it up before the President’s second term ends.
Reps Schiff and Huffman also introduced the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement (ORCA) Act on November 16th. This act would phase out keeping orcas in captivity by prohibiting the breeding, wild capture, and import/export of orcas for public display purposes.
In the wild, orcas live in family groups and swim dozens of miles a day, diving and feeding. Dolphins roam widely as they hunt for food and play freely in a rich ocean environment. A zoo or aquarium or marine park cannot provide even a faint approximation of what are normal living circumstances for these animals, and can lead to abnormal behaviors, stress-related illnesses, and shorter lifespans.
Today’s move by the USDA is a reason to celebrate. Please join us in urging the agency to finalize this rule. It’s been a long wait, and these animals deserve a better living environment.