'Free Willy' bill bans dolphin and whale captivity in Canada

The legislation passed less than a month after SeaWorld Parks reported having the most attendance growth among major North American theme parks in 2018.
Orca whales perform tricks for guests at the One Ocean show at Sea World in Orlando. [CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times]
Orca whales perform tricks for guests at the One Ocean show at Sea World in Orlando. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Published June 11
Updated June 11

The Canadian Parliament passed legislation Monday that bans whales, dolphins and porpoises from being bred or held in captivity nationwide.

The Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act, which was known throughout Canada as the “Free Willy” bill, also outlaws captivity, breeding, trade, possession and capture of all cetaceans.

The bill passed by a wide margin in Canada's House of Commons, much to the delight of animal activists who had been pushing for it since the measure was first introduced in 2015. The bill had already passed the country's Senate.

"The passage of Bill S-203 is a watershed moment in the protection of marine animals and a victory for all Canadians,” Rebecca Aldworth, the executive director of Humane Society International/Canada, said in a statement. “Whales and dolphins don’t belong in tanks, and the inherent suffering these highly social and intelligent animals endure in intensive confinement can no longer be tolerated.”

Knowing that not all animals are able to reacclimate into the wild after being held in captivity, the bill contained some exceptions.

Marine mammals already held will be allowed to remain in captivity. Animals can also be kept during rehabilitation from injury or for the purposes of licensed scientific research.

Any case that doesn't coincide with those exceptions, however, can be punished by fines of up to $200,000 (about $150,000 USD) for each infraction.

While a similar bill in the U.S. would cause disruption to more institutions — especially SeaWorld parks — Marineland in Niagara Falls and the Vancouver Aquarium in British Columbia are the only facilities in Canada that currently keep captive cetaceans.

Marineland has some 61 cetaceans: 55 beluga whales, five bottlenose dolphins and one orca, according to data from the Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The Vancouver Aquarium's number continues to shrink after it began exporting its cetaceans elsewhere since 2017.

Known as being the Canadian equivalent to SeaWorld, Marineland has been in operation — and the center of persistent criticism, according to CTV — since it opened in 1961.

"If the bill didn't do something to end captive breeding, we could have ended up with a beluga farm in Marineland," Barbara Cartwright, the CEO of the animal welfare group Humane Canada, said in a statement.

The Ottawa-based park responded to the bill's passage on Monday with a statement of its own.

"Marineland began an evolution in our operation some time ago and as that evolution continues we are confident that our operations remain compliant with all aspects of (the bill)," the theme park said. "We're proud of our work, and our contribution to research, education, and conservation."

Approval of the bill comes less than a month after the Themed Entertainment Association released 2018 numbers for theme parks that show SeaWorld Orlando's attendance hit 4.59 million last year, a 16 percent increase from 2017. It was the 10th busiest park in North America.

Nearly 60 orcas are in captivity at parks and aquariums worldwide, with a third of the world's captive orcas being held in the United States. All but one live at SeaWorld parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio, according to National Geographic.

Similar bills about keeping whales in captivity have circulated in the United States, including a federal ban proposed by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), but have not been able to gain traction as they did in Canada.

Contact Josh Fiallo at jfiallo@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshFiallo.