The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today released a proposed federal rule to improve standards for the handling, care and housing of captive marine mammals.

The long-discussed protections, in the works for nearly two decades, would amend Animal Welfare Act regulations concerning captive marine mammals, with a focus on orcas (also called killer whales) and dolphins. As for any major changes, there is now a 60-day period where the USDA will accept commentary, but the regulations are expected to go into effect.

“It is an important animal welfare step, at a time when the nation is questioning more than ever if cetaceans should be put on display at all in captive environments at for-profit ventures,” Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the U.S., said in a statement.

Animals in 2016: What’s Ahead: Photos

The USDA proposed rule would affect certain sections in the regulations for the protection of all marine mammals in the United States relating to space requirements, water quality, indoor facilities, outdoor facilities, and interactive programs, like “swim with the dolphin” businesses. The USDA is basically saying that it will now oversee these programs again.

“Interactive programs like these have carried on with no federal oversight for over 15 years since the USDA suspended its enforcement efforts in 1999,” Pacelle said. “We applaud this step because these interactive programs present significant risk to the health and wellbeing of the animals as well as to humans.”

It is widely believed that the new protections are merely steps toward the ultimate goal of ending the exploitation of captive marine mammals for entertainment and business profit gains. They follow California Coastal Commission actions last year, which approved SeaWorld’s plan to expand its San Diego orca pools, but only on the condition that the company does not breed any more orcas at its facility and does not transfer or import any orcas in and out of the facility.

SeaWorld Ends Killer Whale Shows as Federal Ban Looms

In November of last year, SeaWorld announced that its San Diego facility would phase out what Pacelle calls its “stunt-filled, theatrical orca shows for which the company is known.”

The new USDA-proposed federal rule also follows last November’s introduction of the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement (ORCA) Act by Congressmen Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Adam Schiff (D-CA). The act would phase out keeping orcas in captivity by prohibiting the breeding, wild capture, and import/export of orcas for public display purposes.

Public outcry against keeping large marine mammals in captivity has been growing over the past three years. Pacelle and others largely credit the popular documentary “Blackfish” for showing the horrific consequences of long-term confinement of captive orcas, as well as the actions that led to their captivity in the first place.

Pacelle mentioned that in the wild, orcas live in family groups and swim dozens of miles a day, diving and feeding. Dolphins roam widely too as they hunt for food and play freely in a rich ocean environment.

This ‘Granny’ Orca Predates the Titanic: Photos

“A zoo or aquarium or marine park cannot provide even a faint approximation of what are normal living circumstances for these animals, and can lead to abnormal behaviors, stress-related illnesses, and shorter lifespans,” he said.

Pacelle added, “Today’s move by the USDA is a reason to celebrate. Please join us in urging the agency to finalize this rule. It’s been a long wait, and these animals deserve a better living environment.”

Instructions for sending comments are listed on page 2 of the USDA proposed rule.