The so-called ‘Free Willy’ bill passed in the Senate Monday will make it illegal to possess whales or dolphins — collectively known as cetaceans — for anything other than research or rehabilitation purposes. Offenders can be fined up to $200,000 under the Criminal Code of Canada, although whales and dolphins currently held in captivity are exempt. The bill also outlaws breeding cetaceans in captivity.
The bill’s grandfather clause will allow Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont., to keep its nearly five dozen cetaceans until they all die. Among those cetaceans are five young beluga whales that could live up to 50 years — the expected lifespan of a beluga in the wild.
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Marineland owns the vast majority of living whales and dolphins in Canada, according to the whale-tracking site Cetabase. The park has an estimated 51 beluga whales, five bottlenose dolphins and a 40-year-old killer whale at its facility in Niagara Falls, according to Cetabase data and media reports. The park has not confirmed those exact numbers.
Marineland says it remains confident that it complies with all aspects of the new bill, which is awaiting royal assent. The park claims the exemption for its whales “acknowledged Marineland’s role as a custodian for the cetacean populations that call Marineland home, and specifically acknowledged that Marineland Canada’s actions are not inherently animal cruelty.”
The bill passed by the Senate does not explicitly mention Marineland or animal cruelty.
“Marineland Canada continues to be a facility where children can learn about and be inspired by cetaceans without invading their natural habitats or disturbing cetacean populations that live in the ocean,” the park said in a statement on Monday. Marineland says it started evolving its operations “some time ago,” and it’s confident that evolution will keep it compliant with all aspects of the new bill.
Marineland did not provide Global News with the exact number of whales and dolphins in its care, nor did it say whether it will release any into the wild.
“Marineland will continue to provide world-class care to all marine mammals that call Marineland home,” the park said in a statement to Global News.
“With our current mammal population, we will be able to operate decades into the future uninterrupted.”
Many aquariums around the world have faced intense criticism for housing cetaceans since 2013, when the documentary film Blackfish depicted the allegedly poor treatment of killer whales in captivity at SeaWorld in Florida. SeaWorld has described the film as inaccurate, misleading and exploitative.
Activists have been pushing for aquariums to divest themselves of their whales and dolphins ever since the film’s release.
The federal Green Party and its leader, MP Elizabeth May, applauded the ban as a ‘Free Willy’ law on Monday.
“These intelligent, social mammals will now get to live where they belong — in the ocean,” the party wrote on Twitter.
May sponsored the bill in the House of Commons, while Sen. Murray Sinclair sponsored it in the Senate.
The bill also leaves room for the Vancouver Aquarium to hold onto its only cetacean, a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen.
The Vancouver Aquarium started phasing out its whale and dolphin displays last year following public pressure over the deaths of two belugas. It sent another pair of its belugas to Spain in May, one month before the bill was passed. Those belugas had been living at Marineland Canada.
“The decision to move them was made in their best interest, not because of politics,” the Vancouver Aquarium said in a statement at the time.
Activists celebrated the law on Monday under the hashtag #EmptytheTanks.
The bill will come into effect once it receives royal assent.