Canada passes 'Free Willy' bill; outlaws whale, dolphin captivity and breeding
A bill to ban whale and dolphin captivity in Canada is finally set to become law after a sinuous process that took over three years to reach a conclusion.
The House of Commons passed Bill S-203 on Monday morning. The legislation will help outlaw captive breeding and the import or export of whales, their embryos, or sperm, Canadian paper National Post reports.
Addressing reporters at a press conference in Ottawa, Green Party leader Elizabeth May said it was "a really good day for animals in Canada" and that she was “relieved, gratified and appreciative” the bill had passed.
Tabled by former senator Wilfred Moore back in December 2015 and later sponsored by May in the House of Commons, the S-203 — also known as the 'Free Willy' bill — is backed by a series of animal rights groups.
However, it reportedly faced heavy opposition from Conservative senators and barely made it through a House committee as it was originally compiled.
According to Moore, the bill was pushed through parliament only after several Canadians sent thousands of emails and petitions in support of it. “It’s kind of a combination of relief and joy here,” he said. “Canada is better for this.”
He further added he was originally inspired to table the bill after watching 'Blackfish', a 2013 documentary that tells the story of Tilikum, a captive killer whale.
Per the new legislation, anyone found to be keeping cetaceans in captivity is liable to pay fines up to $200,000. Exemptions are in place for outlier cases of injured animals in serious need of rehabilitation and for purposes of scientific research. While the law does not apply to animals currently in captivity, Moore hopes those whales will eventually be retired to sea sanctuaries on the Pacific as well as Atlantic coasts.
As of now, only two facilities in Canada keep whales captive. These include the Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland, a theme park in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
That said, the aquarium announced last year it would end its whale program after Vancouver’s park board passed a bylaw amendment banning cetaceans in city parks. Furthermore, it just has one cetacean left — a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen — and is planning to move it elsewhere for companionship.
Therefore, the new legislation will significantly affect only Marineland, which currently has more than 50 beluga whales in captivity. In 2017, the company fought against the new bill in the Senate, with owner John Holer testifying that Marineland employed hundreds of people and had boosted tourism at Niagara Falls. Also, a lawyer for the company argued the bill was unconstitutional as it would find Marineland in violation of the ban when whales who are already pregnant give birth.
Conservative MPs continued to raise concerns about the bill before it passed the House of Commons Monday. “I just want to put this in context. This bill is actually designed to shut down one business in Canada,” said Alberta MP Blaine Calkins, referring to Marineland.
On the other hand, Andrew Trites, director of the marine mammal research unit at the University of British Columbia, said he was happy the bill included exemptions for rehabilitation and research, as many questions about cetaceans cannot be answered in the wild.
“There are so many things about wild animals that simply cannot be learned with a pair of binoculars or a dart gun,” he said.
At the same time, Trites argued the bill should have included a provision to allow captive breeding programs for conservation purposes as well.