California State Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D–Santa Monica, turned the captive-orca industry on its head this month by introducing 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. It received worldwide media attention and led to a sudden drop in SeaWorld stock.
Bloom recently spoke with us about the bill, its genesis, and its prospects for passage.
TakePart: Your bill was inspired, in part, by Blackfish. Why did you watch it?
Richard Bloom: Many people suggested I have a look, and I immediately understood why it affected people so deeply. My legislative director in Sacramento suggested we carry legislation on the topic. I wasn’t satisfied to just go on the say-so of the film; I wanted to delve a little deeper. We were connected to Naomi Rose [marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute] and some other folks who can really speak to the science more deeply and have expertise on the issue. After that I resolved to carry the legislation.
What were your thoughts about killer whales before Blackfish?
Captivity was not on my radar. Dolphins and whales were—having followed the issues of whales being hunted and killed, and also [serving on] the California Coastal Commission for three and a half years. We were involved with Navy testing of sonar and its impact on dolphins and other cetaceans. And representing Santa Monica, the ocean means a lot to me.
Why only orcas? Why not all dolphins?
This is a bill about killer whales, and I think it’s important to be focused. Frankly, I don’t have an opinion that goes beyond this topic. I understand and appreciate that there are other issues out there.
What are your opponents saying?
Their argument is threefold: that I’m being influenced by crackpots, that I and the bill and its supporters are out to ruin SeaWorld economically, and I’m not supported by the science. SeaWorld’s first line of defense has been to essentially engage in character assassination. I think that one is pretty easy to dismiss. I’m not a big fan of extremists in any form. This bill came about as a result of my involvement in the issue. No one had influence over me, other than my having seen Blackfish and contacted scientists.
As for their second argument, I completely understand the economic value and jobs that SeaWorld provides. But I don’t think anybody would ever argue that we can justify jobs by supporting bad conduct. We can have disagreements about that, but there’s no intention whatsoever to do economic harm to SeaWorld. It’s a weak argument. They have a whole bunch of other exhibits and theme-park rides. Their business model doesn’t depend on orcas.
Number three is the science. We have a growing list of scientists who are certain that captivity for orcas is shortening their lives by putting them in situations where they become stressed, which leads to deterioration and violence among themselves, and occasionally against humans. This is where the debate should be: whether it’s right or wrong. And if the practice is wrong, then it needs to end.
How might committee members vote?
I believe there’s some support, and we haven’t yet had the opportunity to make our case. We want to make sure all the appropriate committee members are fully informed.
If the bill passes, who will pay for relocation, feeding, and care of sea-pen orcas?
It’s SeaWorld’s responsibility. They’re certainly paying for that now. I think that orcas as an attraction to the public doesn’t have to stop simply because they’re in sea pens. We call for an end to the performances that currently take place, but that doesn’t mean some kind of passive observation or display is out of the question.
What can people inside or outside California do?
Anybody interested can contact legislators here. Of course, it’s most meaningful for legislators to hear from their own constituents. And it’s important to keep this debate civil. There’s been very uncivil discourse going on. This is an important topic but one we can engage in civilly. A petition for the bill has upwards of 1.5 million online signatures. It’s heartwarming to know that a lot of folks are supporting this. Anything that even approaches that number is indicative of just how strong public sentiment is on this issue. I’ve done some things before that were pretty popular, but this really is on a far different level.