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Science tells us to end whale and dolphin captivity. So what’s the holdup?

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation.

As a scientist and a grandfather, I am alarmed by the catastrophic rate of species extinction on land and sea. Human activity is the primary reason for this loss and I believe that it reflects the loss of understanding that on this planet, everything is connected so that we remain utterly embedded in and dependent on nature for our health and well being. We must treat other species with greater respect and concern if we are to avoid the destructive path we are on.

Canada's Senate is considering legislation to phase out the captivity of whales, dolphins and porpoises – cetaceans – except for rescue and rehabilitation. At Senate Committee hearings this spring, internationally renowned marine scientists led the charge to pass Bill S-203, the Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act. They argued keeping cetaceans is cruel, given the scientific evidence about their nature and behaviour. I agree with that conclusion. As a scientist, I urge Canadians to rally behind Bill S-203 as the Senate makes its decision and the bill proceeds to the House of Commons.

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Whales, dolphins and porpoises are intelligent, social and acoustically sensitive marine mammals. The evidence indicates they need to roam widely and dive deep in a rich, complex environment to thrive. This is not possible in aquarium tanks. Captive cetaceans experience isolation, health problems, abnormal behaviour, high infant mortality and extreme boredom. Given the evidence, captive facilities – even good ones – cannot provide for their social or biological needs. That is why, as S-203's creator Senator Wilfred Moore told the Senate, "Whales and dolphins don't belong in swimming pools. They belong in the sea."

The committee has heard supporting evidence for S-203 from leading cetacean research scientists from Canada, the United States and New Zealand including Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist who, in 2001, proved that bottlenose dolphins are self-aware. She and a team of scientists are now working on the Whale Sanctuary Project, an open-water refuge for retired captive cetaceans. They are considering sites in Washington State, British Columbia and Nova Scotia. I'm rooting for Canada.

Ontario and California have passed laws to phase out orca captivity. This year, the Vancouver Park Board banned future cetacean captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium. France and other countries have done the same.

It's time for Canada to take the next step. There is strong scientific evidence and public support. There is only one corporation left in the country – Marineland – committed to the archaic practice of holding cetaceans captive for public entertainment.

What's the hold-up, you might ask?

The answer: Conservative Senate Whip Don Plett.

Manitoba's Mr. Plett has mounted a ferocious effort to obstruct Bill S-203. In 2017, Mr. Plett's zeal for cetacean captivity is bewildering and unfortunate. Canadians should be aware that the Conservative caucus in the Senate is part of the national Conservative caucus under Andrew Scheer. I would therefore encourage Mr. Scheer to state the Conservative position – does he share Mr. Plett's pro-captivity view? Bill S-203 deserves the support of all parliamentarians and, at the very minimum, a free and timely vote.

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With Senator Moore's mandatory retirement this year, S-203 supporters' hopes lay with the bill's new sponsor, Independent Senator Murray Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair's legal and Indigenous backgrounds are particularly relevant in light of arguments now being advanced by Senator Plett and Marineland.

They are arguing the committee should not proceed with S-203 because proposed restrictions on imports and exports could, as drafted, arguably apply to Inuit exports of narwhal tusks. This is thin logic. Mr. Moore told the committee that this is not the bill's intention. Any uncertainty is easily clarified with a minor amendment.

I hope Canada's senators will exercise their judgment and afford whales, dolphins and porpoises reasonable protections from the harms of captivity by way of Bill S-203.

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