California Lawmakers Pass Bill Banning Orca Shows, Captive Breeding

Legislation sent to Gov. Jerry Brown also prohibits the export of killer whales.
(Photo: Brigitte Hiss/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Aug 26, 2016· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The California State Legislature on Friday approved a historic bill that would ban the breeding of captive killer whales and orca performances in that state. It would also prohibit the export of captive orcas out of North America.

Violators would face fines of up to $100,000.

The legislation, presented in the State Senate as a rider to a budget bill, passed 26–13, strictly along party lines, with Democrats voting in favor of the measure and Republicans opposing it. It now goes to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Naomi Rose, a killer whale expert and a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, which cosponsored the bill.

“It took us long enough, and it was quite the wild ride, but it’s done, although it still has to go to Governor Brown,” Rose said. “But we hear he is inclined to sign it.”

“The governor has until Sept. 30 to take action,” Deborah Hoffman, Brown’s deputy press secretary, wrote in an email. “We generally don’t comment on pending legislation.”

The move to ban orca breeding and shows in California, home to 11 killer whales at SeaWorld San Diego, was introduced by Democratic Assemblymember Richard Bloom in March 2014.

That bill, which also required that killer whales be sent to retirement in sea sanctuaries, was opposed by SeaWorld and the Assembly majority leader at the time, Toni Atkins, who represents San Diego. It was tabled in committee.

This spring Bloom reintroduced the measure, without the sea sanctuary provision, and it passed an Assembly vote on June 21.

“Today is a victory many years in the making,” Bloom said in a statement. “The Orca Protection Act is a product of scientific consensus, immense public support, and a concerted legislative effort to protect this intelligent and majestic animal.”

SeaWorld, which did not oppose the current version of the bill, unexpectedly announced in March that it would immediately end its captive orca breeding program and phase out killer whale shows at its parks in San Diego, Orlando, and San Antonio by 2019, replacing them with more “natural” displays with a strong educational component.

“As a result of our recent announcement, SeaWorld worked with Mr. Bloom on this legislation, but we do not have a position on the bill itself,” the company said in a statement in March. “SeaWorld is already making the changes called for in the legislation.”

“Importantly, the bill does allow for SeaWorld to rescue and rehabilitate stranded orcas, with the goal of returning them to the wild,” the company added. “And, if the federal government determines that the orca is not releasable, that animal could stay in SeaWorld’s care.”

Even though SeaWorld has voluntarily agreed to the provisions contained in the legislation, the bill is far from symbolic, Rose said.

“Corporate policy can change at the drop of a hat,” Rose said. “[SeaWorld CEO] Joel Manby could decide that he’s done his job, and he leaves, and the next guy goes to the board and says he’s decided he wants to renege.”

“A law is far better than any corporate policy,” Rose said, adding that she would like to see similar bills pertaining to beluga whales, dolphins, and ultimately, all captive marine mammals.

Meanwhile, SeaWorld is fighting to defeat a similar federal bill introduced last November by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.

Federal records obtained by the Animal Welfare Institute show that SeaWorld has spent at least $300,000 lobbying on the congressional bill.

“They say they are just holding educational meetings with Congress members, but several offices have told me [SeaWorld officials] are actively lobbying against the bill, saying that it’s unnecessary because they’re already doing those things,” said Chris Heyde, the institute’s deputy director of government and legal affairs.

SeaWorld did not respond to an email seeking comment on its federal lobbying efforts.

Still, opponents of orca captivity applauded the California legislation.

“I’m elated,” said Samantha Berg, a cosponsor and a former SeaWorld orca trainer who was featured in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which inspired Bloom to author the legislation. “It’s historic and sets a precedent for the rest of the country.

Blackfish director Gabriella Cowperthwaite said she was “a little speechless” at the passage.

“I think when the bill was introduced, we secretly felt it was ahead of its time,” she wrote in an email. “It’s a testament to how far we’ve evolved. It’s so clearly what the people want. I think we’re crossing the finish line on this one.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction: Correction [8/28/16]: An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of the director of the movie Blackfish. It is Gabriella. The article also misstated the first name of the former majority leader of the California Assembly. It is Toni. The article also misstated the last name of the deputy director of government and legal affairs for the Animal Welfare Institute. It is Heyde.