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SeaWorld Drops Lawsuit Against CA Coastal Commission Over Breeding Ban

Move spells an end to captive orca breeding in California

Last week SeaWorld dropped a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission that challenged the agency’s right to impose a ban on breeding killer whales in exchange for approving the expansion of SeaWorld San Diego’s orca tank.

photo of SeaWorldphoto by Tammy LoSeaWorld has dropped a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission challenging the agency's right to impose a ban on breeding orcas.

SeaWorld has since dropped the expansion plan, and in March it had announced that it would no longer breed its captive orcas in any of its three parks in the US. But for some reason it had persisted with the lawsuit, until July 27, when it asked the court to dismiss the case at the last minute before the court could approve Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project’s (IMMP) motion to intervene in the case.

SeaWorld’s CEO Joel Manby stated that the move by the Coastal Commission to ban breeding captive orcas was the point at which he made the decision to end breeding voluntarily in all SeaWorld parks. SeaWorld owns 24 orcas — the largest number of orcas held captive by any outfit in the world. Given that the marine mammal theme park has already agreed to end using dolphins and orcas captured in the wild, this announcement means that once the captive orcas at SeaWorld are no longer around — probably over the next 30 years or so — it will no longer have any captive orcas.

“This finally closes the chapter on captive orca breeding in California,” Coastal Commission Vice Chair Dayna Bochco told The Los Angeles Times. (Bocho was the one who had proposed the breeding ban precondition.)

SeaWorld has faced mounting public pressure in recent years, especially since the 2013 release of Blackfish, a popular documentary criticizing SeaWorld’s treatment of orcas. The film sparked public outrage, led to a precipitous drop in attendance, and affected company profits.

SeaWorld has also faced several lawsuits, including one developed by IMMP, arguing that it has misled the public about the health and wellbeing of captive orcas. 

While the company’s withdrawal of the lawsuit against the Coastal Commission is welcome news, it should be made clear that SeaWorld’s announcement of an end to breeding orcas does not go far enough. 

There are two major weaknesses in SeaWorld’s actions: One is that SeaWorld will continue to hold its 24 captive orcas, including young ones, in small concrete tanks for the rest of their lives. 

IMMP, marine mammal scientists, and other organizations are urging SeaWorld to instead move their orcas to sea pen sanctuaries — netted off areas of the ocean that are far larger than the small SeaWorld tanks and a provide much more natural environment for the orcas. Orcas at these sanctuaries would still be fed and receive vet care, but would not have to perform tricks to get fed. 

More seriously, SeaWorld continues to breed beluga whales and dolphins to expand their captive numbers. It is, for example, building a new “swim-with-dolphins” attraction in SeaWorld San Antonio. Captive dolphins and belugas, like orcas, suffer greatly when kept in small tanks. Prolonged confinement can lead to poor health and an earlier death compared to their wild brothers and sisters. And captive dolphins and belugas are routinely separated from their families to be moved around to other parks and for breeding purposes.

IMMP continues to work to end captivity permanently and retire captive orcas, belugas, and dolphins to sea pen sanctuaries. It  has joined biologist and animal rights activist Dr. Lori Marino and other groups to form the Whale Sanctuary Project to build a sea pen for cold-water dolphins, belugas and orcas. Having led the effort to free Keiko, the orca from the movie Free Willy, IMMP has extensive experience in keeping orcas in sea pens.  For more information, go here.

Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

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