(CN) — California became the first state to ban orca breeding on Tuesday, meaning SeaWorld will be held to its word that this generation of orcas will be its last.
The California Orca Protection Act was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown late Tuesday afternoon as part of the Legislature’s budget omnibus, and bans captive orca breeding across the state. The bill was reintroduced by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, at a March press conference at SeaWorld earlier this year following the park’s announcement in a Los Angeles Times editorial that it would stop breeding the whales.
The act makes it illegal to breed or capture orcas for any reason, including entertainment. Orcas currently in captivity can continue to be held but can only be used for educational purposes.
A similar federal act, the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement Act, was introduced in Congress by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California, last November.
Bloom first proposed the Orca Protection and Safety Act in 2014, garnering a swell of support from animal activists across the country. But his original bill included a stipulation many activists are still calling for: requiring the current orca population held at California theme parks to be retired to sea pens or sea sanctuaries.
Animal rights activists have putting public pressure on SeaWorld and other marine mammal parks over the past year to move whales and dolphins to sea sanctuaries. Members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals recently held a “die in” protest where nearly naked activists were painted like the 38 orcas they say have died due to captivity-related complications.
But the signed bill has less teeth and won’t require SeaWorld to move orcas currently in their care back to the ocean. The theme park has dug its heels in on this issue, signaling it won’t move orcas back to protected ocean spaces unless forced to do so. SeaWorld insists sea pens aren’t practical and could even put the orcas at risk of contracting diseases, exposure to pollutants and even oil spills.
SeaWorld San Diego spokesman David Koontz provided this statement of Bloom’s bill:
“As a result of our recent announcement, we have been working with Assemblyman Bloom on this legislation, but SeaWorld does not have a position on the bill itself,” the statement said. “SeaWorld ended its orca breeding program effective March 17 and will replace all its theatrical killer whale shows with educational orca encounters starting in San Diego next year. The federal government already regulates marine mammals in zoological settings through the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act.
“SeaWorld has introduced more than 400 million guests to orcas, and is proud of our part in contributing to the understanding of these animals. The orcas will stay at SeaWorld and will continue to receive the highest-quality care based on the latest advances in marine veterinary medicine, science and zoological best practices. Most of SeaWorld’s orcas were born in a zoological setting and the environmental threats in our oceans, like oil spills and pollution, are huge dangers for these animals. The best, and safest, future for these whales is to let them live out their lives at SeaWorld, receiving top care, in state-of-the-art habitats.”
John Di Leonardo, animals-in-entertainment campaigner for PETA, said captivity kills orcas and SeaWorld shouldn’t rule out sea sanctuaries or wait for legislation to force them to move the whales back to the ocean.
“We support any effort to move these animals back to sea pens,” Di Leonardo said. “It’s up to SeaWorld to move these animals, rather than waiting for legislation to make them do it. It’s a smart business decision for SeaWorld to get ahead of the curve and do it now.”
He noted the public wants orcas to be moved back to their natural environment even if they still require human care, citing the announcement by the National Aquarium earlier this year that it would move all its dolphins to seaside sanctuaries by 2020. SeaWorld should follow suit and marine mammal parks should change their model to become sea sanctuaries, Di Leonardo said.
SeaWorld has suffered public blowback following the 2013 release of the documentary “Blackfish.” The park has since experienced its lowest attendance numbers and plummeting stocks, leading it to layoffs of hundreds of employees and the replacement of high-ranking officials, including its CEO.
This year marks the final year of the world-famous “Shamu Show,” where orcas do flips and tricks to synchronized music. Beginning next year, SeaWorld will have new orca displays focused on education and conservation.