These days, no responsible tourist can enter a marine park or aquarium without facing the ethical question of whether they should be forking over their hard-earned money to support such establishments. Look no further than the Vancouver Aquarium or Niagara Fall’s Marineland, where activists regularly congregate to protest the captivity and breeding of cetaceans, for proof.

Well those protestors are chalking up a big victory this week now that the Canadian Senate has passed a bill that brings the banning of whale and dolphin captivity in the country one step closer to fruition. In fact, the proposed law would see places like Marineland potentially closing up shop for good.

A long time coming

Bill S-203, or the “Free Willy” bill as it has been dubbed, was first tabled in December 2015 by Liberal senator Wilfred Moore, who has since retired. It was brought to the government’s attention following the increased public awareness on the cruelty of keeping such animals in captivity, but some opposing Tories—led by Sen. Don Plett—used procedural obstructions to delay the vote for nearly three years.

Finally in the week leading up the vote, an amendment to exclude the Vancouver Aquarium from the bill and another to give special consideration to Marinelane were shot down. (These were the only two facilities still keeping captive cetaceans in Canada.) Now Bill S-203 has finally cleared the Senate, will means it makes its way to the House of Commons in May.

A criminal offense

The bill has the backing of various MPs from competing parties across the country (including some conservatives), but it still has a ways to go. If successful, it will phase out the captivity of whales and dolphins over time, allowing Marineland to hold onto its current stock of 55 cetaceans for now.

Meanwhile Vancouver Aquarium announced it is giving up captive cetaceans earlier this year, citing the public debate is distracting from the conservation work the aquarium is trying to promote.

If the bill goes into effect not only would keeping and breeding whales and dolphins become illegal, but fines of up to $200,000 could be imposed on any parks that don’t obey the law.

An increased public awareness

While animal activists and conservationists have long pointed out the cruelty of keeping these intelligent creatures in concrete tanks, many cite the 2013 release of Blackfish as a turning point in public awareness. The documentary followed the plight of Tilikum, an orca held at SeaWorld, and reignited public debate on the issue of keeping cetaceans in captivity.

Meanwhile Air Canada and WestJet have already cut ties with companies like SeaWorld, eliminating promotions and ticket sales to the attraction.

The debate continues

Not everyone is for the legislation, however. Both the Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland have argued that holding the creatures in captivity is beneficial on scientific and educational grounds, while Marineland spokespeople have also used local employment numbers as a tactic in keeping the bill from passing.

Before his death this summer, Marineland owner John Holer testified as much at a Senate committee hearing.

“Bill S-203 was not supported by the relevant ministries or the credible scientific community,” CBC reports. “Sadly, it impairs legitimate scientific and research programs and is explicitly targeted to close Marineland. The bill and the debate around it (have) been highly emotional, lacking in fact-based or science-based analysis and mired in unnecessary conflict incited by radical animal rights groups from the United States.”

In total, the Senate fisheries committee held at least 17 meetings with more than 30 witnesses over the span of eight months before coming to its decision.

A brighter future

Eventually, should the bill clear the final hurdles, the hope is that those marine animals currently in captivity will be released to an open-water, seaside sanctuary in B.C. or Nova Scotia. Meanwhile, the bill also protects future wildlife in prohibiting the importing of such animals, their sperm, tissue cultures, or embryos.

“I would ask all members in this place to work collaboratively and co-operatively to see the bill reach royal assent before the fall election of 2019,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May during the latest Senate meeting. “It would do what many scientists have told us must be done, which is to protect these extraordinarily evolved sentient creatures from captivity that amounts to animal cruelty.”

The debate swims on.