California Delivers Blow to SeaWorld's Captive Whale Program

Orcas leap out of their tank at SeaWorld. (Photo: Ramon grosso dolarea/Shutterstock)

After months of passionate arguments from both sides of the captive whale debate, the California Coastal Commission Thursday granted SeaWorld permission to expand its killer whale tank. Then came the wave of accompanying restrictions.

In addition to a breeding ban (including via artificial insemination), the agency further prohibited the sale, trade or transfer of captive orcas.

In a statement, PETA praised the new restrictions, saying that the "commission’s action today ensures that no more orcas will be condemned to a nonlife of loneliness, deprivation, and misery."

The ruling is something of a blessing and a curse for SeaWorld, which pushed hard for the $100 million tank expansion to counter poor publicity in the wake of "Blackfish" but the marine park had also planned to breed whales to further fill it.

“We are disappointed with the conditions that the California Coastal Commission placed on their approval of the Blue World Project and will carefully review and consider our options,” the park said in a statement after the vote. “Breeding is a natural, fundamental and important part of an animal’s life, and depriving a social animal of the right to reproduce is inhumane.”

But it's okay to confine a social animal to a 1.5-acre, 50-foot-deep concrete tank, right SeaWorld?

According to the LA Times, SeaWorld's lawyers may argue that only the federal government, and not the CCC, has the jurisdiction to restrict breeding and transfers. Nevertheless, many of the commissioners agreed that future whales should not be made to suffer in a marine park.

“They don’t belong in captivity,” commissioner Dayna Bochco said.

While the new tank will certainly improve upon current conditions for the 11 captive orcas under SeaWorld San Diego's care, activists say it's still only little more than a bathtub compared to what's experienced in the wild.

"It is cruelty pure and simple to keep large, intelligent, complex and social sea mammals in tiny tanks and force them to entertain consumers whose dollars would be better spent on conservation of orcas in the wild," Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement. "The commission's decision confirms that SeaWorld's days of breeding and warehousing orcas for entertainment are numbered."