An order to "guarantee the welfare" of animals in France’s dolphinariums and marine mammal parks – including banning whale breeding in capitivity - has been signed off after almost two years of discussions.
The text, worked out by the government, industry professionals, associations and the National Museum of Natural History, repeals obsolete legislation dating back to 1981. It imposes more draconian standards on parks containing whales and dolphins.
The decree was signed on March 28 by ministers, but its publication had been blocked at the last minute by Environment Minister Ségolène Royal to "reassess things with NGOs" (non-government organisations).
According to several sources, Mrs Royal was concerned about the negative publicity that animal welfare associations, particularly One Voice and the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, would create, and so wanted to amend elements of the text. These organisations are fighting for a full ban on cetacean captivity.
On April 10, five NGOs - led by C’est assez! and the Animal Rights, Ethics and Science Foundation - wrote to the minister asking her to publish the order before the end of the current government’s five-year term.
It was ultimately the intervention of Allain Bougrain-Dubourg, president of bird charity LPO which prompted Mrs Royal to go ahead. "The associations asked me to be their ambassador,” said Mr Bougrain-Dubourg. “I spoke with the Brigitte Bardot Foundation and Robin des Bois [an environmental NGO], who admitted it was a first step. This reassured the minister."
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Florian Sigronde, spokesman for Fondation Droit Animal, said: "This is progress for the animals and we are satisfied that the decree is going through. We have made many advances since its first version a year ago."
He regretted, however, that he had "failed to succeed on three important demands: the cessation of captive breeding of dolphins, the end of shows with animals and the banning of the opening of new establishments in France".
The decree contains a long sought-after ban on the reproduction of whales in captivity. The four killer whales held at Marineland in Antibes (Alpes-Maritimes) will therefore be the last of their lineage, leading eventually to the end of captivity of these animals in France.
However, the measure has not been extended to the thirty or so dolphins that also live at Marineland, as well as in Parc Astérix (Oise), Planète sauvage (Loire-Atlantique) and Moorea Dolphin Centre (French Polynesia).
The text only provides for "close control of dolphin breeding", and only "if the configuration and size of the water basins allow".
The decree’s thirty-three articles include new rules on upping the size of basins to a minimum area of 3,500m2 for killer whales and 2,000m2 for dolphins, compared with 800m2 for all cetaceans under the previous 1981 legislation.
Basins must be 11m deep for whales and and six metres for dolphins. "However, this represents only 1% of the volumes in which these animals live in nature," warns Christine Grandjean, president of C’est assez!
The basins must be amended within three years, not five, which was planned in the previous version of the decree, while other improvements include: the addition of waves and waterfalls to avoid the "boredom and frustration of the animals"; no use of chlorine; no night-time shows or use of sound and light effects that "may cause stress to animals" and no direct contact between the public and cetaceans.
The latter means no more swimming with dolphins, a lucrative activity for marine parks (this costs €70 euros in Marineland).
"We are very satisfied with the publication of this decree," said Rodolphe Delord, president of the French Association of Zoological Parks and director of Beauval zoo (Loir-et-Cher).
The association believes that the changes to the animal parks to ensure that they "comply with the requirements of the decree" will cost between €10million and €20m per park.
The interministerial decree on "operating rules of establishments holding cetaceans” was validated yesterday by Mrs Royal and is expected to become law today or tomorrow once it is published in Le Journal Officiel.