Breaking news: Captive Orcas, Dolphins to Get New Federal Protections

By on January 29, 2016 with 22 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

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.

An orca whale in the wild.

An orca whale in the wild. Photo by iStockphoto

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.

Help improve the treatment of captive marine mammals »

Public Policy (Legal/Legislative), Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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  1. Jake says:

    Get them out of those tiny, barren tanks already. Would you like to spend your whole life locked in your bedroom?

  2. Sheila Daniels says:

    Is is so cruel to keep them captive is just wrong all this kind of places need to be shut down

  3. June Bird Killington says:


    Many thousands are speaking up for the captive performing dolphins trapped in Sea World Gold Coast Australia with the help of international and local celebrities but we also need your help and voice.

    Jane Goodall says “SeaWorld Needs To Be Immediately Shut Down” as does Carrie Fisher, Harry Styles, Sting, Bianca Jagger, Martina Navratilova, Anthony La Paglia, Simon Cowell, Shailene Woodley, Pamela Anderson, Olivia Newton John, Ricky Gervais, Edie Falco, Steve Backshall, Bryan Adams, Matt Damon, Matthew Modine, Susan Sarandon, Kelly Slater, Willy Nelson, Cher,Rachel Hunter, Tommy Lee, Jennifer Aniston, Maggie Q, Nicholas Hoult, Montel Williams, Kim Basinger, Rob Zombie, Sir Brian May, Stephen Fry, Jessica Chastain, Paul Rudd, Woody Harrelson, Rita Wilson, Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Lea Michele, Richard Dean Anderson, David Crosby, Courtney Cox, Dave Navarro, Zach Braff, Wynonna Judd, Kathy Griffin, Moby, Jessica Biel, Mariska Hargitay, James Gandolfini, John Leguizamo, Russell Simmons, Olivia Wilde, Scout LaRue Willis, Kelly Le Brock, Russell Brand, Joan Jett, Howard Stern, Aaron Paul (from ‘Breaking Bad’), Kathy Najimy, Olivia Hussey, Kathy Najimy, Niki Taylor, Hayden Panettiere, Mayim Bialik, Meg Matthews, Chet Faker, Wil Anderson, Todd McKenny, Christine Anu, Steve Kilbey, Marcia Hines, Sia, Tyson Beckford, Sinnitta, Ewan McGregor, Matt Goss, Leona Lewis, Angie Bowie, Steve-O, Conan O’Brien, Elvira, Josh Groban, Jason Biggs, Motley Crue, Arianna Grande, Krysten Ritter, Chloe Lattanzi, Sharni Vinson, Samantha Fox, Alexandra Paul, Gina Liano, Jonathan Coleman, Alyce Platt, The Veronicas, Tracey Spicer, Adam Zwar, Lincoln Lewis, Phil Jamieson (Grinspoon), Anthony Ackroyd, Livinia Nixon, Jane Barnes, Former Miss Universe Australia Laura Dundovic, Havana Brown, Simone Buchanan, Cheyenne Tozzi, Caitlin Stasey, Mike Carlton, Silvana Philippoussis, Ella Hooper, Bianca Dye, Barry DuBois, Arj Barker, Jamie Reyne, Peking Duk, Annalise Braakensiek all say:


    “The whole world is up in arms about Sea World and other aquaprisons. It’s time that Australians opened their eyes and became educated to the cruelty of trapping and breeding dolphins as money-making slaves for greedy businesspeople”.

    ‘SEAWORLD SHUT DOWN on Facebook. The First & Only Campaign Against Sea World in Australia’ .

    Trevor Long, Marine Science Director at Sea World Gold Coast says: “Dolphins aren’t some amazing creature, in the wild they just rape and rape and rape”. (Quoted from Gold Coast Bulletin interview January 2015).

    Please help us to speak up for the captive performing dolphins at Sea World on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia.

    We love them rescuing cetaceans but we loathe them keeping dolphins as captives in their aquaprison.

    The dolphins need to be rehabilitated and freed or taken to a safe sanctuary/bay/cove paid for by Sea World to live out their lives without human interference.

    India, Croatia, Hungary New York, South Carolina, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Nicaragua, Slovenia, Switzerland, Brazil, Poland, Luxembourg, Norway and the U.K have already banned cetaceans in captivity and so far there are over 19,000 signatures on the petition and a Facebook page with over 13,000 followers. Also on Twitter @seaworldisevil with over 8,000 followers. The dolphins have been caught from the ocean and brought to tanks/lagoons and are also bred in captivity where they are forced to perform for paying customers and given dead fish but only if they do tricks. All to make money for greedy Sea World business people”.

    Sea World Gold Coast Australia – Keeping dolphins as prisoners since the 70s”

  4. Lisa Deyo says:

    We need to end captivity in this country for all dolphins and whales. It’s cruel, inhumane and can never replace the lives they have in their natural habitat, the ocean.

  5. tye block says:

    These poor souls need to be rehabilitated for release.This cruelty must end. Release these tortured prisoners.

    • "D" says:

      You can not release an animal that has been in human care with human imprinting and expect it to survive. Think about that, what about the dog, cat, bird or other animals that people have in their homes. Should we just release everything and say good luck. These are not tortured prisoners, for many of us they become our family. Trainers that trash the was the animals live chances are they were fired. I loved my former marine mammal training job and would not trade it for anything.
      The owners were a family and cared more about the animals and their well being then the bottom line

  6. Corinne says:

    I am so grateful for no more breeding of the orcas and no sell/trade transfers, but these social, intelligent beings should at least be in sea pens not barren tanks.

  7. Christine Cerqueda says:

    We are not seeking more comfort for dolphins in captivity, but freedom, freedom in the ocean where they belong! Let the dolphins go!

  8. Rosie McDonnell says:

    More people like Wayne, to influence leaders worldwide, to ban captive breeding of marine animals.

  9. Shannon Lowe says:

    It’s important that we as human beings respect how EVERYTHING living thing on this earth deserves to live a life it has been given. We are suppose to be at the to of the intelligence beings, so let’s start showing it. These animals need to be reintroduced into the wild, or introduced for the first time.
    It’s the 21st century and we no longer want or need these types of entertainment. It’s time for circuses, aquariums and roadside zoo’s to come to an end. Our children need to witness these beautiful animals in there natural environment.

  10. Arian says:

    Fabulosa noticia!!!!!

  11. Patricia Anderson says:

    No animals should be use for human entertainment,end captivity of all animals!

  12. KIKUE NISHIO says:


  13. lu says:

    Free them already

  14. julie kirani says:

    This is disgusting making money from the abuse of these beautiful creature’s

  15. William North says:

    This capture and incarceration of intelligent sea creatures has to stop. These watery prisons are described as “aquariums” or “pools”, and the inhabitants are described as “happy” or “having fun”, which is utter rubbish, and an insult to the intelligence of anyone with logical mind. We all have to make a living, but some stoop a lot lower than others to do it.

  16. Marilyn Stonebraker says:

    And we must continue to also help the orca Lolita get out of her tank at Miami Seaquarium that is even smaller than seaworld’s. She has seen only 4 blank blue walls with not even a piece of seaweed for 40 years and her mother and pod are still alive in Puget Sound Washington.

  17. Sally Palmer says:

    A Desert Storm veteran just told me the other day about a saying in the military, “There’s no respect if there’s no inspect.” Without protective surveillance, you can’t begin to count on people not breaking rules and laws, much less not acting out any personal issues of anger, laziness, incompetence, and cruelty. Another big thank-you to The HSUS for working to draw attention to the critical need for oversight to reduce suffering of captive marine mammals. The good employees will shine, the bad ones will at the very least do the minimal for the animals.

  18. Gumboz1953 says:

    Why is this good news? Get them OUT of captivity.

  19. Gumboz1953 says:

    I just notice that this is only a proposed rule. Which means there are 60 days of public comment, followed by what is certain to be an endless round of meetings between SeaWorld et al and USDA, to water down the final rule. This “news” means NOTHING, folks.

  20. "D" says:

    I understand that these comments are old, but wake up people. You cannot take an animal that has been in human care and has been human imprinted and put them back in the ocean. They would die within days. There are animals in human care that were born there, what about them?
    Ask a former trainer who has not been fired, still works for a park, or left their job on good terms. Chances are you are going to get a different story. I loved the park I worked at. I am proud that I worked there. The owner was wonderful to the animals. The staff, including the owner, see the animals as part of their family.
    So, before you start saying release, how, where? Ask yourself that. The animals I worked with have better healthcare, and care in general that any of us will ever have. Any trainer I worked with could close their eyes and tell you every inch of their animals, that they handled, body. Even if they were not even the primary trainer.

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