SeaWorld's controversial practice of keeping killer whales in captivity was just dealt a significant blow by California lawmakers. The California Coastal Commission ruled on Thursday that the San Diego amusement park can no longer breed killer whales, meaning that the 11 whales currently in the park will likely be the last.
“A ban on breeding would sentence these animals to a slow extinction in our care,” said John Reilly, president of SeaWorld San Diego, according to the L.A. Times.
In the ruling, the commission approved a $100 million expansion of orca tanks, which the company argued will improve living conditions. The expansion will triple the size of the killer whale exhibit at SeaWorld's San Diego facility and will open in 2018. The conditions that SeaWorld cannot breed or trade for new orcas in the park was added towards the end of the commission's meeting, ABC News writes:
The last-minute amendment would ban breeding of captive orcas, including through artificial insemination, at the California park but not at SeaWorld facilities in other states.
It also prohibits the sale, trade or transfer of captive orcas. The amendment does provide a potential exemption for certain whales caught in the wild but it wasn't immediately clear whether that applied to any of the orcas at the San Diego park.
Concerns over the conditions of orcas in the park were brought to light in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which alleged that killer whales in the park are subject to abuse, and suffer physically and psychologically. The documentary suggested that one whale's violent behavior, which lead to the death of a trainer in 2010, was caused by traumatic training practices. The company has denied all allegations in the film.
But despite SeaWorld's insistence that the orcas are not maltreated, the company's attendance and profits have plunged since the documentary's release. The Guardian wrote earlier this year that profits had dropped 84% between 2014 and 2015:
The company’s financial report released on Thursday showed net income in the second quarter dropped from $37.4m in 2014 to $5.8m in 2015, a 84% decrease. Revenue fell from $405m to $392m. Attendance dropped by more than 100,000 from 6.58 million to 6.48 million.
“SeaWorld is nothing but a marine circus, and the orcas are their elephants,” Jared Goodman, a lawyer for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) told the Los Angeles Times.
And not everyone is convinced that the expanded tanks will provide improve conditions very much for the animals.
“These new tanks do not meet these basic requirements,” Ingrid Visser, head of the Orca Research Trust in New Zealand told the paper. “No facility ever will.”
Since the decision was announced late yesterday, SeaWorld's stocks have fallen 4.86%. The company might challenge the commission's decision, as their lawyers argued during the meeting that only federal authorities have the right to ban breeding programs and impose conditions on the park.