Gov. Brown signs bill banning SeaWorld orca shows

As reported by the Fresno Bee:

California Gov. Jerry Brown is approving legislation requiring SeaWorld to follow through on its plan to end killer whale breeding and entertainment shows.

The Democratic governor said Tuesday he’s signed a budget bill codifying SeaWorld’s plans in state law.

A provision if SB839 makes it a crime for an individual or corporation to breed orcas in captivity, punishable by a fine of up to $100,000.

SeaWorld announced in March that it was no longer breeding orcas and would stop making whales do tricks at its amusement parks. The company plans to focus instead on the educational opportunities with its existing whales. …

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SeaWorld San Diego Scraps Orca Shows

SeaWorldScrambling to salvage its business amid a wave of negative publicity, SeaWorld has scrapped its traditional orca shows, banking on shaky hopes that the move is enough to turn the tide of criticism.

Trying for a reboot

“In 2017 we will launch an all new orca experience” focused on the whales’ “natural environment,” SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby recently announced, according to the Guardian. “2016 will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience in San Diego.” But the traditional performances will continue at SeaWorld’s other locations in Texas and Florida.

“He said the decision to end the orca shows in California was in direct response to customers, who he said had made it clear that they want less of a theatrical experience and would rather see the whales in a more natural setting,” the Guardian added. “Attendance at the San Diego park is falling fast. Visitor numbers dropped 17 percent last year to 3.8 million, according to city authorities, and Manby warned investors last week that numbers are still falling and would contribute to a $10 million hit to SeaWorld’s profits this year.”

Activists and critics, to little surprise, welcomed the change but swiftly demanded more. “Animal rights activists applauded SeaWorld’s plans to end its orca shows at its San Diego park but said the company should phase out its captivity of killer whales altogether,” the Associated Press reported.

Growing opposition

The root of the crisis traced back to the debut two years ago of a harshly critical documentary film. “Attendance has plunged, and company shares have fallen in half, since the 2013 documentary ‘Blackfish’ made a compelling case that the confinement and exploitation of killer whales inflicted physical and psychological stress on creatures that thrive on socialization and vast expanses of the ocean,” as the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle noted. Tim Zimmerman, co-writer of the film, told CNN SeaWorld’s abandonment of the San Diego shows was a “first step.”

“That film, shown repeatedly on CNN, had a profound impact on how the theme park is percieved by the public. SeaWorld has spent millions of dollars on ads and social media to restore its reputation,” as NPR observed. ‘Blackfish’ took as its point of departure the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, killed by one of the captive orcas at the company’s Florida location. SeaWorld withdrew its trainers from orca tanks after the incident, NPR added; but the damage to its reputation was done, as activists began to focus in on its treatment of whales and the psychology of the animals in captivity.

Legislators and regulators have also chipped away at the company’s fortunes. “SeaWorld suffered another blow last month when the California Coastal Commission approved a SeaWorld plan to expand its orca enclosures in San Diego but added the condition that the park must end its killer whale breeding program and halt the transfer of new whales to the park,” the Los Angeles Times recalled. “The conditions would eventually put an end to the park’s most popular attraction.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has forged ahead with a plan to federally prohibit the captive breeding of orcas. “The fact still remains that as long as SeaWorld holds orcas in captivity, the physical and psychological problems associated with their captivity will persist,” he said, according to the AP.

Added troubles

In a grim irony, SeaWorld’s troubles have not been confined to their featured marine animals. “A Wilsonville man is suing SeaWorld in San Diego, California after a trained hawk attacked his service dog,” KATU reported. “His dog may have contracted an aggressive disease as a result. Robin Revel has mounting veterinarian bills for his service dog Yogi that he didn’t expect after the attack happened in February. That’s why his attorney e-filed the liability lawsuit in San Diego on Wednesday.”

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Coastal Commission’s Whale-Sex Ban May Exceed Authority

SeaWorldThe release of a 2013 documentary, “Blackfish,” that accused SeaWorld theme parks of treating their captive killer whales cruelly put a big dent in the company’s revenue in 2014. Thanks to CNN’s repeated airings of the documentary, anti-SeaWorld sentiment gets a fresh boost on a regular basis from new viewers.

But 2015 has shown improved attendance over 2014’s lows. Now the San Diego SeaWorld venue is benefiting from sympathy over the incredulous reaction from some local residents to the California Coastal Commission’s Oct. 9 decision to condition accepting an expansion of a swimming tank on SeaWorld officials preventing killer whales, known as orcas, from breeding. Here’s a sampling from online comments and letters to the editor:

When did the California Coastal Commission become the Planned Parenthood of aquariums and marine parks? What’s next, requiring SeaWorld to teach abstinence to dolphins?

Big brother is once again misusing law to get their way politically. The Coastal Commission may not be “precluded” from applying this law to captive animals, but it is certainly wrong.

Let me get this straight – the Coastal Commission can regulate who and what breeds in its jurisdiction if it grants you permission to remodel?

Activists say SeaWorld controls all breeding

Many online commenters responded that San Diego SeaWorld already controls the breeding of its orcas and that its actions would have no effect on normal orca procreation at the venue because there is none. But commission officials, aware of the mocking their decision was taking, responded more formally as well. In an op-ed in Friday’s Union-Tribune, commission Vice President Dayna Bochco, a lawyer, defended the decision:

While passions ran high in the hearing room, the commission’s 11 to 1 vote to add these conditions to the project was substantively grounded in Coastal Act policies that protect marine resources and species of special biological significance – which surely describes orcas. These policies are routinely applied to marine mammals in the wild, but the law does not preclude their application to captive marine mammals.

This was not a power grab. The commission is not pre-empted by any federal law, and no other state agency is addressing issues related to captive whales. We were faced with making our decision in a regulatory vacuum.

The commission has always been forward-thinking in its protection of the environment, and the Coastal Act is a broad law. Over the decades it has been interpreted in ways that were controversial at the time but have since become important foundations for coastal protection.

In what appeared to be a coordinated campaign, soon after the op-ed was posted online, dozens of animal-rights supporters from around the nation posted praise for Bochco, the wife of centimillionaire Hollywood producer Steven Bochco, and the Coastal Commission. But there was still incredulity:

Is the CC now going to regulate how I treat my dog and pet hamster if I live in the coastal zone?

On Thursday, SeaWorld announced it would appeal the decision.

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