California Coastal Commission Pours Cold Water on SeaWorld Expansion Plan

On October 8, the California Coastal Commission voted to allow SeaWorld San Diego to build its $100 million expansion of Shamu Stadium, a project known as Blue World, but only under the following conditions: the orca breeding program must end; consistent with federal law, no whales can be transferred into or out of the park; and the number of whales held in the new complex must be capped at 15.

 The phrase “consistent with federal law” means that the whales who are in San Diego because of permits issued under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act—Shouka and Ulises, who were imported from Europe, and Corky and Kasatka, who were caught from the wild—may be transferred out of the park, but the latter three are older and established in the dominance hierarchy and therefore it is highly unlikely they will ever be moved. There are currently 11 whales at SeaWorld San Diego, so the four whales who could be added are to accommodate any rescues that may occur in the future.

Only a few days before the hearing, the commission staff released its recommendation to approve the permit application. The staff recommended conditioning the permit to prohibit SeaWorld from acquiring any orcas captured from the wild since February 2014. It is believed that 13–15 orcas have been captured from Russian waters since August 2012, meaning several might have been “fair game” for SeaWorld to add to the San Diego park.

However, the staff conditions would have allowed breeding to continue unabated. Also, although SeaWorld claimed it wanted to improve the whales’ welfare by providing new features such as a machine that generates a current and more room, the new tank would be separated from the current Shamu Stadium by a narrow channel with gates at either end. The whales would have access to Blue World only at management’s discretion. Further, the construction phase of the project, slated to take about two years, would be stressful, with the whales subjected to noise, vibrations, dust and debris. To top it off, the hole for the new tank would be dug in an earthquake zone subject to liquefaction—the risk of a catastrophic failure of the underwater viewing window, larger than any other at the park, is very real.

The commission has voted against staff recommendations on several occasions in the past. In this case the commissioners, led by Vice Chair Dayna Bochco, unanimously voted to end, through a long-term phase-out, the public display of captive orcas in California. The whales currently in San Diego would almost certainly be the last, as very few orcas strand alive in the wild and even fewer are successfully rescued. SeaWorld has announced it will sue to overturn the commission’s decision. This is hardly surprising, given that SeaWorld already admitted, shortly after announcing plans for Blue World last year, that expanding its orca breeding program was a primary motivation for the project. It was never simply about providing a better environment for the orcas.

To settle the question once and for all, AWI and its allies will push ahead in 2016 and work to pass Assemblymember Richard Bloom’s Orca Welfare and Safety Act, which would end captivity of orcas for entertainment purposes in California (see AWI Quarterly, Spring 2014).

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