Opinion: Government needs to regulate sea parks like Marineland

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

We've heard the accusations and we've heard the defence. Now we're going to get an investigation. Good.

After days of news stories alleging the popular Marineland was abusing and neglecting its marine mammals, the Ontario SPCA will conduct an on-site inspection of the popular Niagara Falls tourist attraction.

"We've got to do what's best for the animals' welfare," Connie Mallory, chief licensing inspector for the SPCA, told the Toronto Star, whose reports this week spurred the move.

"As soon as the concerns came forward, we started to move the wheels. We treat very seriously what was brought forward in the paper."

The decision to go check out Marineland seems to have been made late Thursday. A statement on the Ontario SPCA's web site posted just before 9 p.m. EDT makes no mention of the inspection.

"Neither the Niagara Falls Humane Society nor the Ontario SPCA have received complaints regarding the care of sea mammals at Marineland," says the statement.

"As concerns have been alleged, the Ontario SPCA will work with other agencies to determine an appropriate course of action."

Maybe the wheels were already turning, or maybe someone at the SPCA got a call from Ontario Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur, who oversees the agency.

"I was in tears," Meilleur told the Star after seeing the paper's reports on Marineland.

She said she "would have preferred" to know about potential problems beforehand but now has asked her staff to monitor closely and follow up.

[ Related: Marine mammals at Marineland are sick and neglected ]

The Star deserves a lot of credit for its exposé, which was based on interviews with eight former Marineland employees and documents they provided that alleged recurring water problems triggered a variety of health issues, exacerbated by understaffing.

The stories prompted a wave of adverse reaction, including a demand by singer Suzie McNeil, who does the familiar Everyone Loves Marineland song on the park's long-running TV ad, to have her voice pulled from the commercial.

"I need to get the tag line replaced with 'all the whales haaaaate ... Marineland!'" McNeil tweeted Wednesday, according to the Star.

Marineland owner John Holer has staunchly denied the claims and defended the operation he's run for 50 years. He maintains the facility passed its last inspection by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), a self-regulating industry group.

Now it's time for the SPCA to conduct an impartial third-party investigation. The society has the power under Ontario law and the Criminal Code to lay charges that can result in heavy fines or even jail.

[ Related: Marineland owner defends treatment of animals ]

I hope the former employees who spilled to the Star now will come forward and co-operate with the SPCA to provide the full story.

But more needs to be done.

As the Ontario SPCA pointed out in its statement, only British Columbia has laws specifically regulating zoos and aquariums.

Governments these days are averse to creating new, bureaucracy-spawning regulations, but maybe it's time for other provinces to follow B.C.'s lead.

At the very least, Ontario should consider amending the Ontario SPCA Act, which was toughened in 2009 to include dolphins and whales, as provincial Conservative MP Frank Klees suggests.

And there should be a look at the role of CAZA in inspecting sites such as Marineland. The group renewed the park's licence for five years last September, after an inspection during which former employees told the Star some of the problems were evident.

National director Bill Peters conceded his inspection team took a "broad view" rather than examining specific issues.

If they missed something "clearly we have to look at our procedures," said Peters.

At the very least.