USDA to update regs for captive killer whales, dolphins
Emily Yehle, E&E reporter
Published: Thursday, September 3, 2015
The Department of Agriculture plans to update its regulations for captive marine mammals, recently resubmitting a long-awaited rule to the White House for review.
Congressional Democrats have repeatedly urged USDA to update the decades-old regulations, which govern how aquariums and other facilities care for marine mammals. In July, more than two dozen lawmakers called on the White House to immediately publish a proposed rule that had sat at the White House Office of Management and Budget for more than three years.
Instead, USDA withdrew that rule and resubmitted an updated version last Friday to OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said the agency is "committed to issuing the rule."
"The proposed rule has been under review by OMB for an extended period, and during this time OMB and APHIS [USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] have identified several items that would strengthen it, including incorporating an updated regulatory impact analysis and additional science that make a stronger case for why the proposed rule is necessary," Espinosa said in an email.
The Animal Welfare Act gives USDA jurisdiction over captive marine mammals, most notably the killer whales housed at SeaWorld. The 2013 film "Blackfish," which documents the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, ignited concern among the public for how killer whales are treated in captivity.
Activists have also used the Animal Welfare Act to sue the Miami Seaquarium, claiming that its treatment of killer whale Lolita violated the law (Greenwire, Jan. 22).
USDA's APHIS is in charge of enforcing the standards governing the human handling, care, treatment and transportation of marine mammals at SeaWorld and other facilities. But critics say the rules are outdated and insufficient.
The proposed rule resubmitted to OIRA last week addresses standards such as the size of tanks, the quality of water and swim-with-the-dolphins programs. USDA last tried to update them in the mid-1990s, but a consensus was not reached during negotiations at the time.
Democratic lawmakers say the public has waited long enough. In their letter in July, California Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer joined Reps. Jared Huffman (Calif.) and Adam Schiff (Calif.) and numerous other lawmakers to urge the revisions of the regulations "without further delay."
"Due to delayed federal action, we are deeply concerned that some captive marine mammals, including orcas, may not be adequately protected" under current regulations, they wrote, later adding: "We strongly urge you to publish the rule for a public comment period so that updated science can be incorporated into the Agency's decision to ensure that the welfare of captive marine mammals is protected."