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A deep dive into the fight to end whale captivity

The SWIMS Act, introduced in January of this year, may finally come into force in the US, ensuring a better life for captive cetaceans and pulling a plug on any such in future.

For decades, the cruelty of confining some of the world’s most intelligent creatures to tiny tanks for human amusement has raged as one of the most controversial animal welfare debates.

Haunting footage of whales smashing their bodies against concrete walls and separating mothers from calves fueled a rising tide of outrage.

Now, that tide may finally crest with the introduction of landmark federal legislation – the Strengthening Welfare in Marine Settings (SWIMS) Act.

This multifaceted bill represents what could be the decisive blow in battles spanning generations to liberate whales and dolphins from captive entertainment.

How activism brought a multi-billion dollar industry to its knees 

The battle to end whale captivity kicked into blistering overdrive in 2013 when the documentary ‘Blackfish’ showed shocking footage exposing the psychological torment and public dangers behind SeaWorld’s orca exhibitions. Attendance plunged as corporate sponsors distanced themselves amid protests.

Despite an overwhelming outcry from animal rights activists, including a deluge of over 120,000 emails and letters from PETA supporters, as well as hundreds of protesters – including the actor Pamela Anderson – gathering at the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center for the California Coastal Commission hearing, the commission ultimately voted to grant approval for SeaWorld’s proposal to construct a new orca enclosure in San Diego.

However, this approval came with a crucial condition: one of the commissioners successfully amended the plan to mandate a ban on any further breeding of the orcas. This combination of public pressure led to the once-unthinkable: SeaWorld finally announced in 2016 it would end its orca breeding programs.

However, that hard-won concession contained loopholes wide enough for a whale to swim through. SeaWorld’s policy doesn’t extend to its parks outside California, nor does it stop the company from continuing to breed belugas or other whales. And without an overarching federal law, a new marine park could simply resurrect orca shows in the future.

The bill that could end whale imprisonment for good

Recognizing these limitations, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers introduced the SWIMS Act in January 2024, led by Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Jared Huffman (D-CA), Suzan DelBene (D-WA) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).

It will prohibit wild capture of whales for public display, ban breeding of orcas, belugas, pilots and false killer whales at any facility and UK block imports or exports of those four species for entertainment.

‘Holding orcas, belugas, pilot whales, and false killer whales in captivity is inhumane. These intelligent and amazing animals belong in the ocean – not in small concrete tanks,’ stated David Phillips, Director of the International Marine Mammal Project at Earth Island Institute.

Critically, the legislation does not require remaining captive whales to be immediately released into the wild, which could be traumatic. Instead, it allows for them to be rehabilitated and retired to more naturalistic seaside sanctuary environments as they become available.

‘There is ample proof of how damaging it is to hold these amazing beings in concrete tanks, just to perform tricks for entertainment and corporate profit,’ Phillips says. ‘Passage of the SWIMS Act would help end this cruelty.’

A rising global paradigm shift subheading

During the summer months, Representatives Adam Schiff, Jared Huffman, Suzan DelBene, and Senator Ron Wyden spearheaded an effort alongside 19 of their congressional colleagues to send a follow-up inquiry to the US Department of Agriculture.

This inquiry urgently called for immediate action to revise the outdated and inadequate standards that govern the handling and care of approximately 1,400 captive marine mammals held in facilities across the country.

The aim was to ensure that these standards reflect the latest scientific evidence. While updated standards, including increased minimum space requirements, may improve the welfare of smaller marine mammal species, the group acknowledged that no amount of regulatory reform would be sufficient to enable larger species to thrive in captive environments.

The science and real-life tragedies show again and again that marine mammals suffer terribly from entertainment – often exploited and abused. But our outdated laws and practices fail to reflect these realities.

The prospect of seaside sanctuaries, which rehabilitate captive whales in netted-off coves and bays, has further enabled this paradigm shift. These provide more natural environments while still protecting whales too compromised for full release.

Seaside sanctuaries offer a humane alternative by giving captive whales far larger, enriching spaces for their remaining lives. Once established in the US, there will be no excuses left for parks like SeaWorld to keep these intelligent beings in tiny tanks.

Why this could be cetaceans’ final battle

The SWIMS Act aims to end the captivity of whales and dolphins for entertainment purposes in the US. Proposed legislation prohibits breeding captive cetaceans, mandates the establishment of sanctuaries for those currently held, and paves the way for their eventual reintroduction into natural habitats.

While previous efforts have made progress, such as the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, loopholes allowed entertainment conglomerates to continue exploiting these intelligent marine mammals. The SWIMS Act seeks to draw a firm line, reclassifying whale shows as relics of an exploitative bygone era.

Proponents argue that the legislation marks a generational watershed moment, echoing past movements that freed creatures like circus elephants from subjugation.

By allowing remaining captive whales to experience more natural environments and eventually reintroducing their descendants into the wild, the SWIMS Act aims to restore the full freedom that is these majestic creatures’ birthright.

Despite formidable lobbying power from the marine park industry, advocates believe shifting public sentiment and ethical awakening will propel the SWIMS Act’s passage, signaling a pivotal milestone in redefining humanity’s relationship with whales and dolphins.