In a surprising move that is sure to send shock waves across the entire captive whale and dolphin industry, a California lawmaker will propose legislation to outlaw Shamu shows at SeaWorld San Diego.
State Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D–Santa Monica, will introduce Friday the Orca Welfare and Safety Act, which would make it illegal to “hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance or entertainment purposes.” The bill would also ban artificial insemination of captive killer whales in California and block the import of orcas or orca semen from other states.
Violators would face a fine up to $100,000 and/or six months in a county jail.
“There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes,” Bloom declared in a written statement prior to a press conference to be held at the Santa Monica Pier. “These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete pens for their entire lives. It is time to end the practice of keeping orcas captive for human amusement.”
According to Bloom, the law would be “the most comprehensive protection law for captive orcas in the United States in over 40 years.”
Under the terms of the bill, all 10 orcas held in tanks at SeaWorld San Diego, the only California facility that has whales, “shall be rehabilitated and returned to the wild where possible.” If that is not possible, then the whales must be “transferred and held in a sea pen that is open to the public and not used for performance or entertainment purposes.”
Exempt from the legislation are any orcas held for rehabilitation after a rescue or stranding, or for research purposes. But even these animals would have to be returned to the ocean or sent to a sea pen.
It is not the first time state lawmakers have tried to outlaw the captivity of killer whales, the world’s largest dolphin. South Carolina passed a bill in 1992 against captivity for dolphins and porpoises following efforts by the South Carolina Humane Society to stop a proposed dolphin park in Myrtle Beach. Just last month, New York state Sen. Greg Ball, R-Carmel, introduced a bill to ban orca captivity in that state.
Of course, there are no captive orcas in South Carolina or New York, making the California bill far more than a symbolic gesture.
At least five countries—India, Croatia, Hungary, Chile, and Costa Rica—have also outlawed all cetacean captivity, while Switzerland has banned captivity for dolphins.
Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said the bill was inspired by the orcas-in-captivity documentary Blackfish.
“The Blackfish effect has never been in greater evidence—everything has led to this, the first serious legislative proposal to prohibit the captive display of this highly intelligent and social species,” Rose wrote in an email. “SeaWorld should join with this effort rather than continue to fight it. They can be on the right side of history.”
Assemblymember Bloom reached out to Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, for help with the bill, who in turn consulted with Rose.
“We did not initiate this proposal,” Rose wrote. “But once they reached out to us, we dove in wholeheartedly and assisted in every way we could—helping with the bill language, information, and fact-gathering, and getting support from various sectors of the public, including the scientific community.”
Rose also gave credit to former SeaWorld trainers featured in the documentary for supporting the legislation. Rose, Cowperthwaite, and former SeaWorld trainers Carol Ray and John Hargrove were scheduled to appear with Bloom at the Friday press conference.
Should the bill become law, SeaWorld might want to look at other highly successful aquariums that do not keep cetaceans in swimming pools. The Monterey Aquarium in northern California, for example, is routinely packed with visitors, without a single whale or dolphin in sight.
In South Carolina, where orcas will likely never entertain people, staffers at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston routinely direct visitors to local waterways if they want to see dolphins.
The Charleston Post and Courier reported in 2010 that when tourists ask to see the dolphins at the aquarium, the facility’s CEO, Kevin Mills, “smiles and answers, ‘Just walk out on our observation deck and you're bound to see them, swimming freely in the harbor.’ ”