Congress to Do-Nothing USDA: SeaWorld’s Captives Have Waited 19 Years for Your Help

Congress to Do-Nothing USDA: SeaWorld’s Captives Have Waited 19 Years for Your Help

Twelve years after new regulations were proposed, the department has yet to take steps to improve conditions for marine mammals.

Tilikum, SeaWorld’s 12,000-pound breeding male orca. (Photo: Milan Boers/Flickr)



May 31, 2014


In 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked the public to comment on proposed updates to standards for captive marine mammal operations. Comments poured in from interested parties ranging from animal exhibitors to animal-rights folks and scientists. A dozen years later, the USDA still hasn’t updated the standards.

On Thursday, members of Congress took notice, and took action. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.; Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.; and 38 others signed a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling for his agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to adopt the long-overdue rules, which would cover facility design, water quality, space requirements, and more.

Will the National Aquarium Free Its Dolphins?

“Sound, modern science should inform our regulations on marine mammal captivity,” Huffman and Schiff said in a joint statement. “Unfortunately, USDA has refused to act for nearly two decades, endangering humans and orcas alike. It’s unacceptable that our regulations protecting orcas and other marine mammals have not been updated to reflect the latest science. It is past time for USDA to address this issue.”

The representatives cited “the public interest in humane treatment of orcas and other marine mammals, especially in light of the death in 2010 of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum, and the film Blackfish” as the motivating factors behind the letter. (Just one of the 40 who signed the letter was a Republican: Walter Jones of North Carolina.)

According to the letter, the USDA has failed to update the regulations under the Animal Welfare Act for nearly two decades.

The USDA’s failure to act, along with scientific advancements in marine mammal biology, “means that the information USDA currently has on the proposed rule is likely outdated,” the letter said.

In 1995, a USDA advisory committee suggested revisions to the marine mammal sections of the AWA. It took seven years to propose final language on the new regulations. In 2002, the public comment phase began, during which time the USDA received more than 300 messages, the letter to Vilsack noted.

For decades, animal-welfare advocates have issued formal complaints against SeaWorld and other U.S. dolphinariums, alleging that many tanks did not meet federal minimal standards, that many facilities were deteriorating and therefore a hazard to the animals, and that marine mammals are not given sufficient protection from sun exposure, among other alleged AWA violations.

TakePart has reported on these issues, including stories on the orca Lolita, whose Miami Seaquarium tank is clearly too small to house her according to federal law, and on one occasion when USDA inspectors investigated conditions at SeaWorld Orlando and issued violations.

Growing awareness of subpar conditions at marine mammal parks “has garnered great attention by the general public,” the letter said, “especially with the release of the documentary film Blackfish that calls into question the feasibility of keeping orcas humanely in captivity due to the enormous physical and psychological impact on orcas kept in confinement.”

Captivity opponents cheered the members of Congress for demanding that overdue reforms to the way captive marine mammals are handled finally be implemented. The news followed an announcement this month by the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which said it would review its policy of keeping dolphins on-site and explore the possibility of retiring those animals to sea-pen sanctuaries.

Naomi Rose, an orca expert and marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, was a member of the 1995–1996 rule-making committee that suggested the upgrades. “Representative Huffman reached out to my organization and we helped clarify some elements of the regulatory process for his staff. I am very happy to have a congressional office focused on this at last,” she said in an email.

“We are,” Rose added, “most certainly on a mainstream roll.”


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