SWIMS Act Reintroduced to Phase Out Public Display of Captive Whales

A beluga whale looks out from an aquarium tank
Photo by Kuremo

Bill would prohibit breeding, wild capture, import, and export of four whale species

Washington, DC—The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) applauds US Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA), Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Suzan DelBene (D-WA), and US Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) for reintroducing the Strengthening Welfare in Marine Settings (SWIMS) Act today. This legislation would phase out the captive display of the four larger cetacean species held by US marine theme parks and aquariums: orcas (also known as killer whales), beluga whales, pilot whales, and false killer whales. Specifically, it would prohibit the breeding, wild capture, and import and export of these species for the purpose of public display. The bill would not prohibit the continued holding of animals currently in captivity, thus providing the facilities time to transition to a more humane future.

“Science increasingly supports the conclusion that we cannot provide conditions in a concrete enclosure to accommodate the size, wide-ranging nature, and physiological and social needs of these four species,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, AWI’s marine mammal scientist. “The SWIMS Act would compel marine theme parks and aquariums to focus on educational and conservation opportunities that do not perpetuate the unnecessary suffering of these animals.”

The current global population of captive whales has two sources – wild capture and captive breeding programs. Historically, US display facilities received permits from the federal government to capture whales or import wild-caught whales. Wild captures of these larger species have not occurred in US waters in decades, and wild-caught whales from other parts of the world have not been imported for 30 years. In the United States today, about 30 belugas are distributed among three SeaWorld parks and three other facilities: Georgia, Mystic and Shedd aquariums. SeaWorld parks also hold 18 orcas and two pilot whales. No false killer whales are currently in captivity, though once there were dozens.

However, US law still allows capture and import permits to be issued. These practices would be expressly prohibited under the SWIMS Act. Essentially, current corporate practice would be codified in law, making it impossible for a future change in corporate policy to undo all the progress that has been made over the last dozen years due to mounting public pressure.

“Whales should be living free in the ocean, not the confines of a concrete tank,” Schiff said. “The SWIMS Act would protect these magnificent creatures from lives trapped in captivity and prevent the cruel practice of breeding whales for public display. I thank Senator Wyden and Representatives Huffman and DelBene for their support on this important and compassionate bill.”

“The science and tragic real-life experiences have shown us time and again that marine mammals suffer from being in captivity - often being exploited and abused. But our laws and practices don’t reflect that,” said Huffman. “We must finally make the humane changes that have been needed for decades. With our bill, these extraordinary mammals can thrive and be appreciated where they belong – in the wild.”

Over the summer, Schiff, Huffman, DelBene, and Wyden led 19 colleagues in a follow-up inquiry to the US Department of Agriculture, urging immediate steps to revise the outdated and inadequate handling and care standards that govern the approximately 1,400 captive marine mammals held in US facilities to reflect the latest scientific evidence. Updated standards, including increased minimum space requirements, may improve the welfare of smaller marine mammals; however, no amount of regulatory reform would enable larger species to cope well in captivity.

“Whales that are held in captivity live much shorter lives than in the wild, and despite rules passed to improve conditions in public display settings, this fact persists,” Wyden said. “Banning the trade and breeding of these four species of whales for the purpose of public display would further improve animal welfare nationwide. Additionally, by supporting whales in the wild, our bill also promotes more whale-watching tourism which flourishes off the coast of Oregon, where major whale migrations occur each year.”

Whales and dolphins are treasures of our coastal areas, and they deserve to thrive in their natural habitats, free from exploitation and abuse, added DelBene. This legislation would prevent the capture and breeding of these majestic marine animals for public display, ensuring they are observed and cherished in the environments where they truly belong.

A fact sheet on the SWIMS Act is available here.

Media Contact Information

Marjorie Fishman, Animal Welfare Institute
[email protected], (202) 446-2128

The Animal Welfare Institute (awionline.org) is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.