Congressman Jared Huffman

Representing the 2nd District of California

Members of Congress Call on USDA to Act to Protect Captive Orcas and Marine Mammals

May 29, 2014
Press Release
Huffman & Schiff: “It’s unacceptable that our regulations protecting orcas and other marine mammals have not been updated to reflect the latest science.”

WASHINGTON­—Today, Congressmen Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) and 38 members of Congress called on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take immediate steps to ensure the humane treatment of captive orcas and marine mammals. In a bipartisan letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the members of Congress urged the USDA to immediately update Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations for captive marine mammals, which have not been updated since 1995.

“Sound, modern science should inform our regulations on marine mammal captivity,” said Huffman and Schiff. “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 documentary film Blackfish drew public attention to the need to protect captive orcas and ensure they are treated humanely. The documentary argues that keeping orcas in captivity and regularly requiring them to perform for the public is cruel and causes enormous physical and psychological pain.

In 2002, USDA sought public comment on an update to captive marine mammal standards for indoor facilities, outdoor facilities, water quality, space requirements, and swim-with-the-dolphin programs. During the public comment period, USDA received numerous comments from the animal exhibitor industry, animal welfare groups, the scientific community, and the general public, recommending changes to tank sizes and otherwise improving facilities for marine mammals. Yet twelve years later, USDA still has not finalized these regulations.

In addition to Reps. Huffman and Schiff, the letter is cosigned by: Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Sam Farr (D-CA), Mike Honda (D-CA), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Mark Takano (D-CA), George Miller (D-CA), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Linda Sánchez (D-CA) Brad Sherman (D-CA), Jared Polis (D-CO), Jim Himes (D-CT), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Theodore Deutch (D-FL), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Madeleine Bordallo (D-GU), Bobby Rush (D-IL), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Bill Keating (D-MA), James McGovern (D-MA), John Tierney (D-MA), Sander Levin (D-MI), Gary Peters (D-MI), John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Carol Shea-Porter (D-MH), Walter Jones (R-NC), Rush Holt (D-NJ), Dina Titus (D-NV), Eliot Engel  (D-NY), Nita Lowey (D-NY), Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), James Langevin (D-RI), Gerald Connolly (D-VA), James Moran (D-VA), and Peter Welch (D-VT).

“We applaud Rep. Huffman and all the congressional signers of this letter to the USDA to protect these magnificent creatures in captivity.  The rule has languished for years while the public learns of their plight through films like Blackfish,” stated Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States.

“We are very grateful to Congressman Huffman for pushing to get these updates to the captive marine mammal regulations moving again,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute. “I was at the negotiated rule-making discussions in 1995 and 1996 and to say these updates are long overdue is a great understatement.”

The letter may be found HERE or below:

Dear Secretary Vilsack:

We are writing to request the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) take immediate steps to prioritize the regulations for captive marine mammals from your 2002 advanced notice of proposed rulemaking [Docket No. 93-076-17], publish the proposed rule, allow a public comment period to incorporate updated science, and then quickly finalize the rule.

For almost two decades, USDA has failed to update the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations for captive marine mammals.  In 1995, a Marine Mammal Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee advised USDA on revisions to the marine mammal regulations but no consensus language was developed for five sections of the AWA regulations ­ indoor facilities, outdoor facilities, water quality, space requirements, and swim-with-the-dolphin (SWLD) programs.

Seven years later, in May 2002, USDA issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking to finalize language for the five sections of the AWA regulation that the Advisory Committee was unable to find consensus on.  During the public comment phase, USDA received over 300 comments from the animal exhibitor industry, animal welfare groups, scientific community, and general public. Included were recommendations on increasing tank sizes and otherwise improving facilities for marine mammals, including orcas. Yet, twelve years after the public comment closed, USDA has failed to publish a proposed rule, much less finalize these regulations.

In the meantime, we continue to hear about tragic incidents involving marine mammals in captivity, including the death in 2010 of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by the orca Tilikum.  This situation has garnered great attention by the general public, 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 and regularly required to perform for the public.

The twelve year lapse in action by USDA coupled with continued advancements in science and research of marine mammals means that the information USDA currently has on the proposed rule is likely outdated.  Specifically in need of renewed review and the incorporation of updated science are care and maintenance regulations such as increasing minimum space requirements, establishing species-specific ambient temperature ranges, the swim-with-the-dolphin programs, and considering the effects of noise on animals.

We therefore strongly urge USDA to prioritize this proposed rule, publish the rule for a public comment period so that updated science can be incorporated into the agency’s decision, and then quickly finalize it in order to provide the most updated and scientifically supported humane standards for captive marine mammals.

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

Sincerely,

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