The Last Generation of Orcas – SeaWorld to End Breeding of Killer Whales and Phase Out Killer Whale Shows
Wed Mar 23rd, On Environmental Law, by Bick Law LLP
On March 17, 2016, SeaWorld Entertainment announced that its current population of killer whales will be the last generation of orcas at SeaWorld, and that it will begin phasing out theatrical orca shows in favor of “new, inspiring, natural orca encounters.” The orca shows will end in San Diego in 2016, and will end by 2019 in San Antonio and Orlando.
This announcement comes nearly three years after the release of the documentary Blackfish, which targeted SeaWorld for its treatment of its killer whales and its trainers, including trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by one of the whales. Since Blackfish was released, SeaWorld has been under pressure from animal-rights activists, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, to end the captivity and breeding of orcas. In its press release, SeaWorld appears to have acknowledged this public pressure by stating, “SeaWorld has been listening and we’re changing. Society is changing and we’re changing with it. SeaWorld is finding new ways to continue to deliver on our purpose to inspire all our guest(s) to take action to protect wild animals and wild places.”
This announcement is also in accordance with SeaWorld’s November 9, 2015 announcement that, instead of pursuing a $100 million tank expansion project, it would create a new orca experience in a more natural setting to focus on its conservation efforts. As discussed in our previous blog post, SeaWorld submitted an application to the California Coastal Committee to expand its orca facilities by doubling the size of the whale tanks and splash zones. The Coastal Committee, which is charged with preserving and protecting coastal values, issued a ruling permitting some expansion based on several conditions, including that SeaWorld not increase the orca population in the facility, except as may occur incrementally pursuant to accredited reproductive guidelines. That decision echoed legislative efforts to protect orcas, including legislation sponsored by U.S. Representatives Adam Schiff and Jared Huffman to prohibit the breeding of captive orcas, end the capture of wild orcas, and stop the import and export of the killer whales.
Although many commend SeaWorld on its decision to end breeding and orca shows, some say it is not enough. PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk stated that in order to “do right” by the marine mammals in captivity, SeaWorld should release its “long-suffering” animals into ocean sanctuaries so that they can live the remainder of their lives outside of their tanks. Joel Manby, SeaWorld’s president and CEO, disagreed, noting in a letter to the Los Angeles Times that most of its orcas were born at SeaWorld, and if they were released into the wild, they would likely die. In fact, Manby continues, “[N]o orca or dolphin born under human care has ever survived release into the wild.” SeaWorld plans to keep the orcas in the parks, where they will receive “the highest-quality care, based on the latest advances in marine veterinary medicine, science and zoological best practices.”
Manby’s statement also highlights SeaWorld’s new partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, an organization that was a former adversary of SeaWorld. As one of the largest rescue organizations in the world, SeaWorld plans to increase its focus on rescue operations. Together, SeaWorld and the Humane Society will work against commercial whaling and seal hunts, shark finning, and ocean pollution. SeaWorld will also make efforts to raise awareness of animal welfare by offering humane food options and serving only sustainable food.
Given the public, regulatory, and legislative pressures, along with the corresponding image problem and attendance issues after the release of Blackfish, this is a strategic shift to address public concerns as well as business and financial needs. For example, although insisting that Blackfish did not contribute to attendance issues, SeaWorld experienced a major decline in attendance and profits shortly after the documentary’s release. In light of this new announcement, SeaWorld’s CFO projected an attendance increase of 380,000 to 940,00 over the next three to five years, as well as a revenue increase of $20 million to $80 million, and a pretax profit increase of $25 million to $65 million. Further, according to an internal poll, the percentage of customers who would consider visiting SeaWorld after this decision jumped from 5 to 17 percentage points.
What remains to be seen are how these decisions and accompanying public, regulatory, and legislative debates will affect not only other sea mammals in SeaWorld’s facilities, but also other animals under human care in animal-display parks, including circuses and zoos.