SeaWorld Got Caught in a Pretty Fishy Lie

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People have long been saying that SeaWorld abuses animals. But this time, the marine theme park's in real trouble. Because this time, it bothered humans. And not just regular humans. Wealthy humans.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) just fined SeaWorld and the park's former CEO $5 million ... All because the company refused to admit that a documentary brought down its reputation.

In 2013, director Gabriela Cowperthwaite made "Blackfish," a documentary about SeaWorld. The film used the story of a SeaWorld killer whale named Tilikum to talk about how SeaWorld abuses its animals. The movie changed how people thought about the theme park. Attendance went down, and musical acts refused to perform there. But the company pretended everything was fine.

“[T]here is no truth to the suggestion that SeaWorld’s reputation or business has been harmed by ‘Blackfish,’” said Frederick D. Jacobs, the company spokesperson, before selling his SeaWorld stock and saving himself $84,885. SeaWorld's former CEO also sold his stock, which saved him $730,860.

As it turned out, SeaWorld's shareholders did not appreciate this little plan, particularly when SeaWorld's share price fell 32.9 percent.

“SeaWorld described its reputation as one of its ‘most important assets,’ but it failed to evaluate and disclose the adverse impact Blackfish had on its business in a timely manner,” explained Steven Peikin, a SEC director. After some legal wrangling, SeaWorld agreed to pay a settlement.

The company got what it deserved, but my feelings about the larger SeaWorld controversy remain complicated. On one hand, I feel for the animals. On the other hand, if you look at the bigger picture of humanity's impact on marine life, SeaWorld orcas start to look like small fry.

Humans are dumping trash in the oceans, digging for oil in the sea floor and changing the climate. Half of marine populations have dissappeared over the last few decades. 90 percent of fisheries on Earth are overfished. Compared to what's going on in the oceans, the SeaWorld animal plight looks symbolic at best.

Then again, maybe that's why these SeaWorld animals are important. They make this story personal. It's harder to care about billions of marine mammals than it is to care about one orca named Tilikum.