November 04, 2021

Schiff, Feinstein, Huffman, DelBene, Colleagues Urge USDA to Improve Standard of Care for Captive Marine Mammals

Today, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Representatives Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) led a group of their colleagues in calling for improvements to outdated standards of care for marine mammals in captivity.

“Nearly four decades have passed since the USDA last updated key elements of the handling and care standards for marine mammals in 1984,” the members wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Since then, significant progress has been made in marine mammal biology and ecology, which should inform federal care regulations, such as increasing minimum space requirements, establishing species-specific ambient temperature ranges, and mitigating the effects of noise.”

“Urgent action is needed to ensure the approximately 1,400 captive marine mammals are adequately protected. We urge you to prioritize the development of a humane and science-based rule to modernize the outdated marine mammal regulations for these highly intelligent and social animals,” they concluded.

In addition to Feinstein, Huffman, Schiff and DelBene, the letter was also signed by Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Representatives Nanette Diaz Barragan (D-Calif.), Don Beyer (D-Va.), Ed Blumenauer (D-Ore.), Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Madeline Dean (D-Pa.), Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Bill Keating (D-Mass.), Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), Adam Smith (D-Wash.), Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.), Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

Background:

In the almost 40 years since the standards of care set by the USDA were updated, several tragic incidents involving marine mammals in captivity have occurred, most notably the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by the orca Tilikum. The 2013 documentary Blackfish examined this tragedy and raised questions about the feasibility of keeping orcas humanely in captivity due to the enormous physical and psychological toll of confinement.

A proposed rule to prioritize and reissue rulemaking for regulations related to the handing and care of marine mammals in captivity was issued in 2016, but shelved in 2017 and subsequently withdrawn. 

 

Click here to read the letter or read the full text below:

 

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

We request that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) take immediate steps to update the handling and care standards for captive marine mammals and ensure such standards reflect the most up-to-date science.

Nearly four decades have passed since the USDA last updated key elements of the handling and care standards for marine mammals in 1984.  Since then, significant progress has been made in marine mammal biology and ecology, which should inform federal care regulations, such as increasing minimum space requirements, establishing species-specific ambient temperature ranges, and mitigating the effects of noise. 

Updating the minimum space requirements is especially critical to improve the welfare of captive marine mammals.  Research within the past 20 years indicates that marine mammals in the wild move far more widely than was previously understood, including diving to astounding depths.  For example, a 2015 study by researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Washington Seattle found that belugas routinely dive to 2,000 feet, yet the current minimum required depth for this species in captivity is only 7 feet.

Urgent action is needed to ensure the approximately 1,400 captive marine mammals are adequately protected. We urge you to prioritize the development of a humane and science-based rule to modernize the outdated marine mammal regulations for these highly intelligent and social animals.

Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to your prompt response.

 

Sincerely,

Members of Congress

 

###