A group of scientists and ethicists have come together to argue that dolphins and whales should be granted legal rights based on their intelligence.
Such a move would ensure that the species are protected under international law.
The group have been studying the animals for years, and have decided that there is sufficient evidence of their intelligence, self-awareness and expression of complex behaviours to have their rights enshrined in law.
The proposed legal changes known as the 'Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans' would see the animals protected as 'non-human' persons with a legally enforceable right to life. The term 'cetacean' includes dolphins, whales and porpoises.
If successful the law would bring legal force to bear on those who kill such creatures, including the whale hunters. Marine parks and aquariums would also be banned from keeping these animals in captivity.
Tom White is director of the Centre for Ethics and Business at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
"We're saying the science has shown that individuality, consciousness and self-awareness are no longer unique human properties. That poses all kinds of challenges," he said.
"Dolphins are non-human persons. A person needs to be an individual. And if individuals count, then the deliberate killing of individuals of this sort is ethically the equivalent of deliberately killing a human being," he added.
"The captivity of beings of this sort, particularly in conditions that would not allow for a decent life, is ethically unacceptable, and commercial whaling is ethically unacceptable," he concluded.
Decades of research on cetaceans has revealed that their brains are very different from humans. They are large, complex and capable of sophisticated behaviour. Experiments have shown that dolphins can recognise themselves in a mirror, use tools and understand symbols and abstract concepts.
In one cited incident, orcas off the cost of Patagonia were seen to feed an elderly, dying companion after he suffered damage to his jaw which meant that he could no longer feed himself. This sort of behaviour towards an elderly member of the species is virtually unseen in the natural world.
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