Lawsuit Seeks to Uncover Why Government Is Allowing SeaWorld to Hide Orca Necropsies

Photo of Tilikum, from Flickr by Milan Boers

Washington, DC—The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) filed a lawsuit this week against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) related to the agencies’ refusal to enforce requirements for SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment (SeaWorld) to submit necropsy results of three SeaWorld orcas who died last year.

Specifically, AWI is suing NOAA/NMFS for failing to respond to its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents on the agencies’ decision. The agencies claim that an obligation under pre-1994 public display permits to provide necropsy results and clinical histories (complete veterinary records) is no longer in effect due to 1994 changes in the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), but have offered no legal justification for the claim.

The three deceased whales (Tilikum, who was featured in the documentary Blackfish; Kyara, Tilikum’s granddaughter, who was just 3 months old at the time of her death; and Kasatka, who, along with Tilikum, was one of the last remaining wild-caught whales at SeaWorld) were the subject of MMPA public display permits issued prior to 1994 (in Kyara’s case, that of her grandfather). NOAA/NMFS claim these permit requirements have been extinguished, despite legal analysis to the contrary provided to the agency by AWI counsel.

“This is an issue of government transparency and sound science” said Dr. Naomi Rose, AWI marine mammal scientist. “We find it disturbing that the agencies have gone to such great lengths to hide their rationale for their legal conclusion. The government is allowing SeaWorld to withhold information critical to science—one of the justifications for public display under the law—that would shed light on the lives and deaths of these orcas.”

AWI and other organizations also appealed directly to SeaWorld for this information, including via an August 2017 open letter, to no avail.

In public statements after the deaths of each whale, SeaWorld cited generic lung disease as a cause of death. Fatal lung infections are all too common in captive orcas. A more detailed look at the necropsy results and clinical histories would provide scientists, including those involved in rescuing stranded whales and dolphins, with important information on treatments, diagnoses, and prognoses.

AWI is represented in this FOIA litigation by Perkins Coie, LLP.

Media Contact Information

Amey Owen, (202) 446-2128, [email protected]