Backgrounder: Bill S-203 Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphin Acts

Bill S-203 Summary

Bill S-203, Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphin Acts, is strong, spearheading legislation that would protect cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) from the trauma of confinement for human entertainment by banning their captive breeding, imports, exports and live captures. The bill does not stop or impede the rescue, research or rehabilitation of injured individuals and owners of currently captive whales and dolphins would be able to keep them, just not breed them. Former Nova Scotia Senator Willie Moore tabled the bill in 2015 and it has been treading water ever since, until this week.

The bill is evidence-based policy. “Whales and dolphins are highly intelligent, emotional and social creatures that roam vast distances in the sea,” said former Senator Moore. “Science tells us that keeping them in captivity is unjustifiably cruel. Canada’s laws should reflect the evidence.”

In the wild, many cetacean species live their entire lives with their families called pods that may contain up to 100 members. Different pods have their own dialects, whistles particular to their family. Orcas can travel up to 150 kilometres a day, reaching speeds of 45 kilometres an hour and dive more than 200 metres deep. In comparison, “a captive orca’s range is only 1/10,000th of 1 per cent the size of its natural home range. Just think about that: 1/10,000th of 1 per cent of its natural home range.”

You can’t swim that far or dive that deep in a concrete tank or swimming pool. A beluga at the Vancouver Aquarium, one of two facilities in Canada that currently holds captive cetaceans, has swum thousands of laps in their tank for years. Their social and physical isolation, dorsal fin collapse, broken teeth, damaged skin, reduced lifespans and stress-induced aggression is morally unacceptable. As former Senator Moore reported from the hearings, “Dr. Lori Marino, a leading cetacean scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia… believes that captive cetaceans have attempted suicide by beating their heads against the walls of pools and leaping from their tanks.” It is way past time for this legislation, thousands of Canadians agree.

The committee has received overwhelming support from Canadians to pass S-203. Senator Murray Sinclair, who took over the bill’s sponsorship upon Senator Moore’s retirement, reports that public support for the bill is immense. “Each of us on the committee have probably received a few thousand emails, generally in support of the bill. There are quite a few Canadians out there who want this to pass. I recognize the importance of it.”

Concerning whales and dolphins in captivity, politics and legislation is lagging far behind the general public. It is past time for our laws to catch up.

‘Un-understandable’ opposition

Yet despite the overwhelming public support for the bill and abundant scientific research, S-203 has faced unyielding opposition from Conservative Senators, led by Conservative Senate Whip Don Plett who has made a mission of killing the bill.

Canadian Federation of Humane Societies CEO Barbara Cartwright is concerned about Senator Plett and the Conservatives continuing antics, as their “‘un-understandable defense of Marineland, almost as if they’re lobbying on behalf of Marineland, seems to me to be an issue or a problem with the way the process is happening.” MP Elizabeth May agrees. On September 13th, she sent a letter to Lobbying Commissioner Karen Shepherd raising concerns about possible past and continuing breaches of the Lobbying Act regarding Bill S-203 and calling for an investigation into the Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium’s conduct. Despite a lack of registered lobbying of public office holders related to the bill, “there is evidence to suspect that significant lobbying of at least one and possibly additional senators by Marineland, or on its behalf by its agents, has occurred in relation to Bill S-203,” May said. iPolitics reports that, “The complaint cites several reasons to suspect improper lobbying: social media posts (some of which have since been deleted), comments made by senators at committee, professionally-prepared letters sent to all senators by both facilities and a grassroots letter-writing campaign aimed at senators organized by the aquarium.”

Senator Plett is implicated in many of these cases, as several times in committee he has cited content that Marineland may have provided and attacked witnesses’ credibility based on detailed information reflecting the park’s claims in ongoing litigation. In May 2016 he was also among a group of Conservative senators who visited the Vancouver Aquarium but disregarded to make note of it in the public record. Senator Plett has made multiple attempts to halt the bill’s progress through the Senate, which thus far have failed. Before it was referred to committee, Plett and other Conservative senators made a hoist amendment, an extraordinary measure to defeat it at second reading. In committee, Plett made further efforts to stop it from being referred back to the Senate by requesting another round of consultation, despite the extensive testimonies already given.

The bill swims on back to the Senate

Plett and the Conservatives made some legitimate complaints regarding the bill but as their colleagues on the committee noted, all those issues could be solved by amendments. And on October 27th, 2017 they were, as Senator Sinclair proposed those amendments and by a vote of 9-5 all of them were accepted. A primary objection to the bill’s original state was that it did not account for Indigenous treaty rights and consultations. One of the clauses Sinclair introduced recognizes those treaty rights and s. 35 of the Constitution, “to ensure that Indigenous people in Canada know this is not intended to derogate rights that are protected under s.35,” he said. Five indigenous senators consequently voted in favour of Sinclair’s amendments and to move the bill forward.

This is a great step forward but the bill is far from passed and cetaceans far from being protected. Immense public support for S-203 helped move it through the committee and that backing must be maintained to ensure the bill makes it the rest of the way through the Senate and House of Commons. Please write to the Senate. Write to your Member of Parliament. Make sure every representative knows how much you care about keeping whales, dolphins and porpoises out of captivity.

As former Senator Elizabeth Hubley wrote in an iPolitics opinion piece supporting the bill, “Times change and the entertainment value of watching whales and dolphins swim circles in concrete tanks should be ending, too – just like this legislative circus.” Because this is how we should see whales, dolphins and porpoises. In the wide wild ocean, with their families.

Suggested Text for a Petition


  •  Whales and dolphins are intelligent, social, and roaming creatures;
  • Scientific evidence shows that they suffer unjustifiably when kept in display tanks; and
  • The practice of keeping them in display tanks is plainly cruel.

We, the undersigned, citizens or residents of Canada, call upon the House of Commons to expeditiously pass Bill S-203, Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act, tabled in the Senate by former Senator Wilfred Moore, when the bill reaches the House of Commons. Please do the right thing and support this evidence-based policy.

Links to Wildlife and Animal Advocacy Groups

The Whale Sanctuary Project’s mission is to establish a model seaside sanctuary where cetaceans (whales and dolphins) who are being retired from entertainment facilities or have been rescued from the ocean and need rehabilitation or permanent care can live in an environment that maximizes well-being, autonomy and is as close as possible to their natural habitat. Composed of experts in the fields of marine mammal science and behaviour, veterinary medicine, husbandry, engineering, law and policy, the group seeks to lay the groundwork for the creation of permanent cetacean sanctuaries.

Zoocheck is a Canadian-based international wildlife protection charity established in 1984 to promote and protect the interests and well-being of wild animals. One of their current campaigns is to raise public awareness about the capture, import and display of cetaceans for public display and entertainment in Canada.

Campobello Whale Rescue Team (CWRT) is a volunteer organization that consists primarily of fishermen, a biologist and other volunteers. Trained and experienced in using specialized equipment to disentangle whales from fishing gear, the CWRT works with weir owners to release trapped whales. The CWRT is licensed and permitted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada to conduct whale disentanglement and release operations in the Bay of Fundy and adjacent waters off Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Animal Justice leads the legal fight for animals in Canada. Their lawyers work to pass strong new animal protection legislation, push for the prosecution of animal abusers and fight for animals in court.

The Wilderness Committee was founded in 1980 is a non-profit staffed by over 60,00 staff, volunteers and activists working to preserve wilderness, protect wildlife, defend parks, safeguard public resources and fight for a stable and healthy climate. Among their current priorities is protecting the southern resident orcas living in the international waters between BC and Washington State.

Orca Conservancy is an all-volunteer non-profit organization is based in Washington State that works to protect orcas and the wild places in which they live. Collaborating with some of the world’s top research institutions and environmental groups, the organization is currently focused on the endangered southern resident orcas, J-Pod, K-Pod and L-Pod, who inhabit inland waters of Washington State and BC.