California Legislator Proposes Outlawing Orca Shows, Ending Captivity

The 'Blackfish Effect' has now reached the political realm: A California lawmaker is proposing legislation that would outlaw killer-whale shows at marine parks.

[Cross-posted at Orcinus.]

The documentary Blackfish may not have qualified as an Oscar finalist this year, but it has already had more real-world impact than any similar film in memory, in addition to its having sold over 2 million theater tickets. The realization of that impact became manifest this week when a ban on killer-whale shows at marine parks was proposed by a California legislator:

Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D) proposed the legislation at an event in Santa Monica. The Orca Welfare and Safety Act AB-2140) would allow orcas to stay at SeaWorld, but only for research and rehabilitation; the whale would no longer be allowed to perform. Human interaction with the animals would be limited for trainers’ safety.

Also included in the bill are measures to prevent captive breeding and prohibit orcas from being imported and exported in California.

“There's simply no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes,” said Bloom. “These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete pools for their entire lives.”

The proposed legislation stops short of demanding sea parks release orcas back into the wild because experts say they wouldn't survive after living in captivity.

The ban would only affect Sea World San Diego, the only captive-orca facility remaining in a state that once had several. He also has some early support:

Democratic assembly member Lorena Gonzales of San Diego has already gone on the record, via social media, that she will most likely vote 'yes' on this bill.

Gonzalez has posted on Facebook, "SeaWorld's reputation of treating its workers poorly dates back to its opening 50 years ago. It's about time we continue this conversation about job quality and workplace safety at Sea World whether it involves groundskeepers, concessions workers or killer whale trainers. Recent evidence suggests its record with orcas isn't much better. I'm looking forward to having an honest conversation about Sea World's business practices and how they can really be an icon that makes San Diego proud."

As David Kirby points out, such a ban would neither be new nor extraordinary, since a number of places have outlawed cetacean captivity in the United States and elsewhere:


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At least five countries—India, Croatia, Hungary, Chile, and Costa Rica—have also outlawed all cetacean captivity, while Switzerland has banned captivity for dolphins.

Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said the bill was inspired by the orcas-in-captivity documentary Blackfish.

“The Blackfish effect has never been in greater evidence—everything has led to this, the first serious legislative proposal to prohibit the captive display of this highly intelligent and social species,” Rose wrote in an email. “SeaWorld should join with this effort rather than continue to fight it. They can be on the right side of history.”

Indeed, Rose has elsewhere proposed a scheme whereby Sea World can turn a profit by doing the right thing for the orcas, and for the children they claim they are educating:


These facilities can work with experts around the world to create sanctuaries where captive orcas can be rehabilitated and retired. These sanctuaries would be sea pens
or netted-off bays or coves, in temperate to cold water natural habitat. They would offer the animals respite from performing and the constant exposure to a parade of strangers (an entirely unnatural situation for a species whose social groupings are based on family ties and stability -- "strangers" essentially do not exist in orca society). Incompatible animals would not be forced to cohabit the same enclosures and family groups would be preserved.

Show business trainers would no longer be necessary. Expert caretakers would continue to train retired whales for veterinary procedures, but would not get in the water and would remain at a safe distance (this is known in zoo parlance as "protected contact"). And the degree to which they interact directly with the whales would be each whale's choice.
A fundamental premise of these sanctuaries, however, is that eventually they would empty. Breeding would not be allowed and captive orcas would no longer exist within the next few decades.
Many wildlife sanctuaries, for circus, roadside zoo and backyard refugees, exist around the globe for animals such as big cats, elephants and chimpanzees. The business (usually nonprofit) model for these types of facilities is therefore well-established for terrestrial species and can be adapted for orcas.

Quite predictably, Sea World sees all this -- just as it does Blackfish -- as an existential threat, and is firing back vigorously and viciously:

While we cannot comment on Assemblyman Bloom's proposed legislation until we see it, the individuals he has chosen to associate with for today's press conference are well known extreme animal rights activists, many of whom regularly campaign against SeaWorld and other accredited marine mammal parks and institutions. Included in the group are some of the same activists that partnered with PETA in bringing the meritless claim that animals in human care should be considered slaves under the 13th amendment of the US Constitution - a clear publicity stunt. This legislation appears to reflect the same sort of out-of-the-mainstream thinking. SeaWorld, one of the world's most respected zoological institutions, already operates under multiple federal, state and local animal welfare laws.

This is typical of Sea World: Rather than address the real issues underlying the matter, it chooses to attack the people involved and touting their business credentials; their chief argument seems to be that they are better people -- even while they lie through their teeth to us at every turn, whether it's telling people that captive orcas live as long as wild whiles, or claiming to be really all about conserving orcas in the wild.

Indeed, the most laughable part in all this comes when Sea World tries to claim it is also a leader in conservation and wildlife recovery efforts for the animals in its care. That may be true of Florida manatees, but it is simply a flat-out lie when it comes to orcas.
One thing we know for a fact about SeaWorld: Even though it preaches a "conservation message" to people who come to their theme parks, it does almost nothing of consequence in the real world to assist in the conservation of wild killer whales.

When people at those parks ask what they can do to help killer whales in the wild, they are given generic answers such as watching what lawn fertilizer they use, or not littering, or assisting in beach cleanups.

But these things do little if anything at all to actually help killer whales in the wild. Indeed, you will find only scant references at Sea World parks to the only officially endangered population of killer whales -- the Southern Resident population of the Salish Sea. And if you do happen to hear about them, you will be told that their chief threat is boats and pollution.

What you will not be told is that in reality, the Southern Residents face a doubly whammy. The first whammy came in the loss of over a third of its historic population during the period 1964-75, when SeaWorld and its cohorts founded the captive-orca industry by removing some fifty resident killer whales from Puget Sound waters. Since then, its population has wavered between seventy and a hundred whales -- we are currently at 81 -- in large part because of the second whammy: a lack of salmon, particularly the Chinook salmon that comprise their preferred diet.

Recovering the orca population is necessarily focused on restoring our salmon runs, both in the Salish Sea and in the Columbia River and elsewhere, including Northern California. It is a long and difficult fight, one in which the progress has been slow, in large part because of a lack of financial support for salmon restoration.

Where has Sea World been in all this? Nowhere. They have not funded orca-population studies or censuses, let alone communications and ship-noise studies that are needed. We did see them briefly during the Springer episode, when SeaWorld lent local scientists the use of a diagnostic lab and an overseeing veterinarian to
test a sample of Springer's blood before she was transported north and successfully reunited with her familial pod. For that, they now claim credit for the entire project.

If SeaWorld were serious about assisting orcas -- and serious about their claims to being a conservation-oriented organization -- they would be a major presence in the Northwest in the long hard battle to restore our salmon and save our killer whales. Instead, they are nowhere to be seen -- too busy teaching orcas to breach in triplicate and rolling in the revenue stream that creates.

They also specialize in lying about and smearing the people who are in fact actively engaged in the work of saving wild killer whales in their native habitat. This latest confrontation is just another iteration of what we have seen from them all along.

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