After years of criticism from environmental groups, SeaWorld announced this week that it will no longer breed and keep killer whales in captivity.
The company will end its breeding program and won't capture more whales from the wild, meaning that the whales it currently owns will be its last. SeaWorld also said it will phase out all orca shows for the whales it still owns, and replace them with shows that "will focus on the research, education, care and respect that align with our mission to advance the well-being and conservation of these beautiful creatures." In November last year, after California legislators introduced a bill that bans orca captivity, SeaWorld announced it would end shows in San Diego.
Concerns over the practice of keeping killer whales at SeaWorld were brought to light in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which focused on one orca in particular, Tilikum, involved in three human deaths during his 23 years in captivity. The film alleged that the animals suffer physical and psychological damage from being kept in the parks, sometimes separated from their families, and trained to perform. The company has denied the allegations, calling the film "propaganda."
Last week, SeaWorld said that Tilikum has contracted a bacterial infection in his lungs and is unlikely to survive. The news follows the deaths of three animals in the space of three months at SeaWorld San Antonio since December last year.
In an op-ed in the L.A. Times this morning, SeaWorld President and CEO Joel Manby wrote, "For some time, SeaWorld has faced a paradox. Customers visit our marine parks, in part, to watch orcas. But a growing number of people don't think orcas belong in human care."
But he appeared to deflect the question of whether the whales had suffered from being kept in captivity in SeaWorld parks:
These decisions—and the debates that preceded them—are about more than these orcas. Bigger questions are at stake than whether any animals anywhere should remain under human care…
Wild animals and wild places will continue to disappear—biologists call this “the sixth extinction,” comparable to previous cataclysms such as the ice age—unless humans awaken and take action.
In this impending crisis, the real enemies of wildlife are poaching, pollution, unsustainable human development and man-made disasters such as oil spills—not zoos and aquariums.
The company's profits have taken a substantial hit since the release of Blackfish: according to the Guardian, net income dropped 84% between 2014 and 2015, from $37.4 million to $5.8 million. Along with the killer whale news today, SeaWorld also announced a new partnership with the Humane Society.