On Thursday, the California Coastal Commission voted on whether or not to allow SeaWorld San Diego to expand their Orca tanks, in what SeaWorld calls the “Blue World Project”. The park announced the expansion plans in 2013, and has been receiving both praise and criticism for the project. The entire company has been on a slide since the anti-SeaWorld film, Blackfish, gained popularity in late 2013. The new Blue World Project was the key that the company came up with to not only answer concerns about the living conditions of their whales, but also help the company regain it’s attendance and profit. Of course, the vote and project was met with loud opposition from activists who have been petitioning for the closure of SeaWorld. Both sides met to present their cases to the commission, along with thousands of supporters from both sides.
The Coastal Commission received over 120,000 letters of protest from PETA and other organizations. The commission also received over 32,000 letters of support. The surge of supporters and protesters was so great that the hearing and voting was moved to the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center.
SeaWorld protesters argued that the tanks would cause a variety of problems, from pollution to more births, to even more animals being harmed. According to them, it was not a viable solution, or it was a solution that needed to have provisions that would ultimately see the end of whales on display at SeaWorld, and the return of whales born in the wild, to the wild. All members of the board were given copies of Blackfish, as proof that the practice was inhumane.
SeaWorld supporters argued that the new project would not only benefit the company, by creating jobs, and raising revenue, but it would most importantly benefit the animals. After all, the animals should be the concern in these proceedings. They also argued that returning any whale to the wild, whether wild or captive born, would be a death sentence to the whale, as documented in the book, Killing Keiko. That book told the story of the whale from the film Free Willy, who was released and ultimately died five years later.
The vote held a lot at stake for SeaWorld. If approved, the company could finally begin expansion on the Orca tanks, and see the animals in larger environments within the next few years. It could also mean a huge surge in support for the company, as they would finally be allowed to fulfill a promise that they made. If declined, the company would basically be forced to keep the animals in the same tanks that protesters were adamant were way too small. It could also mean the end of the park’s presence in San Diego, as the negative vote would mean that SeaWorld would not be allowed to expand in the way that they needed to.
Earlier in the year, the staff of the Coastal Commission recommended that the council vote yes, based on finding from independent studies. It also stipulated that the park not keep any animals that were captured after 2014. SeaWorld has not captured animals in over 30 years. The last animal to come from the wild was not captured by SeaWorld, but rescued from another park which had mistreated it. The controversy comes from not only the film, Blackfish, but the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau while performing with the parks’ largest animal, Tilikum.
After the hours of debate, and words from both sides, the decision came in. SeaWorld won the approval of the Coastal Commission. However, there was a stipulation. The park is not allowed to breed any more animals in the park, nor can they transport animals in or out of the park. Essentially, the whales that SeaWorld has in park, are the whales that they will have until those whales die. Once those whales die, then the Orca shows, in theory end at SeaWorld San Diego. There was no discussion on what the penalty would be, should SeaWorld not comply with those stipulations.
At the end of it all, it was a massive compromise from the activists and the park. No one really got everything they wanted. The activists didn’t get a release of animals into their care, or into sea pens. SeaWorld didn’t get to continue doing business as they have been for the past 50 years.
Bottom line, the park will be allowed to build their huge $100 million dollar expansion. However, if the park wants to build the tanks, they jave to end the breeding program. But with that essentially meaning the end of the Killer Whale program at the park, keeping only the whales they currently have until they die, it’s hard to imagine that SeaWorld will agree. The decision also states that the park cannot move animals in or out of the park, which done for not only breeding reasons, but also behavior reasons, like when an animal becomes aggressive to the other animals.
More than likely, SeaWorld will take the decision to court. The only legal decision the Commission should have been able to make was a simple yes or no on the building of these new tanks.
While this effectively does put a stop to artificial insemination in the park, it does not stop natural breeding, which will happen unless the park completely separates the male and female population, so it will be interesting to see the rule enforced. The park agreed to also put a cap of a maximum of 15 whales in the park at any given time.
Keep in mind this ruling is strictly for the San Diego park, and does not affect the expansion in the San Antonio or Orlando parks.
On another note, SeaWorld is scheduled to announce the new direction of the park chain in November. This latest ruling may help push that direction away from San Diego altogether, or away from the Blue World Project.
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