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DelBene, Schiff, Huffman, Feinstein Push Science-Based Care Standards for Captive Whales, Dolphins

Lawmakers call for overdue report on status of updated standards

Today, Representatives Suzan DelBene (WA-01), Adam Schiff (CA-28), Jared Huffman (CA-02), and Senator Dianne Feinstein (CA) led a group of 19 lawmakers in a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack calling on the federal government to update standards of care for captive marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins, to better reflect the best available science. These standards include tank size, water quality, hours of interaction with the public, and access to shade.

“Significant progress has also been made in other areas of marine mammal biology and ecology since USDA last updated its regulations,” the lawmakers wrote. “Updates to handling and care standards for captive marine mammals do not reflect current science and are long overdue.” 

A provision in the Fiscal Year 2023 federal funding law secured by DelBene, Feinstein, and others requires USDA to prioritize updating these standards and provide an update to Congress within six months. The report was due in June 2023 and USDA has not provided any update.

USDA regulates animals in zoos and aquariums and the standards of care for captive marine mammals have not been updated in over 40 years. Research since the policies were last updated in 1984 shows that wild marine mammals travel far more widely and to greater depths than previously understood. For example, orcas can dive to depths of more than 3,500 feet, over 1,000 feet deeper than previously believed. Under current regulations, however, the minimum tank depth for a captive whale or dolphin is only half of the length of an average-sized adult, or 12 feet for orcas.

The department proposed an update in 2016, which was eventually shelved by the Trump administration.

A similar letter to USDA in 2021 went unanswered.

While these care standards apply to all captive marine mammals, DelBene has focused on the care of Tokitae, the world’s oldest captive orca who has lived at the Miami Seaquarium since she was captured from the Puget Sound in 1970. For years, Tokitae’s health and her enclosure have been serious causes of concern and updated care standards could contribute to improving her condition while her long-term relocation from the aquarium is worked out.

The letter to USDA can be found here.