California’s recent effort to ban orca shows at SeaWorld in San Diego met a disappointing outcome when it was put on hold this week, but the fight to end the exploitation of orcas in the state is far from over.
In March, assemblymember Richard Bloom introduced the Orca Welfare and Safety Act (AB 2140), in response to growing ethical concerns about keeping orcas in captivity that were brought to the public’s attention by the documentary Blackfish.
The bill would have banned the use of orcas as performers in theme shows, ended captive breeding programs and ended the import and export of orcas and their genetic material into and out of the state. It would also require that the state’s 10 captive orcas, who are currently at SeaWorld, be retired to sea pens if possible or kept on display only.
The bill received widespread support from animal advocacy organizations, Gabriella Cowperthwaite, the creator of Blackfish, former SeaWorld trainers and the public. On Monday, orca advocates presented the assembly with 1.2 million signatures in support of the bill during Orca Welfare Lobby Day in Sacramento.
Supporters continue to argue that it’s not just their sheer size that makes captivity inappropriate, but that the needs of these highly intelligent and socially complex apex predators can’t be met by the industry even with the best of intentions. Despite SeaWorld’s claims that its orcas are well cared for and that it’s providing the public with an educational opportunity, whale and dolphin advocates have documented a long history of abnormal behavior, captive breeding disasters, depression, aggression, poor dental health, injuries, the effects of stress and death from diseases they would never contract in the wild as a few of the problems that come with confining these animals in tanks.
While some lawmakers were ready to support the bill this week at a meeting of the assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, it was ultimately put on hold. Although it was a disappointing outcome for orca advocates, it’s promising that it wasn’t killed entirely and that the outcome will allow the bill to move forward without the prejudice of a vote.
Instead of voting, the committee moved to send it to interim study so the legislature can fully consider all the facts and give both sides more of an opportunity to weigh in. Bloom supported the move, saying 30 minutes of debate were not sufficient to determine the full impact of the bill.
“It’s unfortunate that much of the conversation has been fueled … by fear and invective and misinformation,” Bloom said during the hearing. “It’s clear that many committee members are simply unprepared to make a decision on the bill.”
The move will also give supporters time to work out logistical issues that raised concerns among committee members, such as the part about moving orcas to sea pens when it comes to a timeline for moving them, where they would be and who will ultimately be responsible for their care and the associated costs.
Dr. Naomi Rose, a Marine Mammal Scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute who sponsored the bill, stated:
“We are pleased to see that the committee will further review this issue and help ensure SeaWorld finally comes to the table. The science is clear―holding killer whales in captivity is harmful to the whales and to the trainers. The interim study mandated by the committee will provide further evidence of the need for this bill. We look forward to participating in this effort and excited to return next session to pass this bill into law.
She also told the AP she’s working with lawmakers in Texas and Florida, which are home to SeaWorld’s other parks, to introduce similar legislation.
As SeaWorld continues to defend its practices and dismiss the “Blackfish effect,” awareness and controversy surrounding the film continues to grow and it seems the public might just be turning away from parks on its own. Recent filings by SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. show a 13 percent decline in attendance for the first three months of the year to about 3.05 million visitors from 3.5 million for the same period last year, reports the LA Times.
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