Bad Day for Captive Orcas: California's 'Blackfish' Bill Stalls

SeaWorld gets to keep its killer whales for at least another year.

(Photo: Reuters)

Apr 8, 2014· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

A California Assembly committee scheduled to vote Tuesday on the Orca Welfare and Safety Act instead tabled the measure, pending an “interim study” of the controversial legislation, which could take up to 18 months to complete.

The move to delay voting, which was proposed by Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee Chairman Anthony Rendon, surprised observers and disappointed animal rights activists.

If approved, the law would make it a crime to “hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance or entertainment purposes.” It would also ban artificial insemination of captive killer whales in California and block the import of orcas or orca semen from other states.

Opponents and proponents of the measure, introduced last month by Assemblymember Richard Bloom, squared off in a heated debate staged in a packed hearing room at the State Capitol in Sacramento.

Witnesses testifying in support of the bill included Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, a sponsor of the measure, and John Hargrove, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld San Diego and San Antonio, as well as Marineland in Antibes, France.

They testified that orcas’ lives in captivity are marred by shortened life spans, ill health, family separations, and broken teeth that need daily cleaning, among other problems. Most of the orca science conducted at SeaWorld, they contended, has almost no application in advancing knowledge of wild killer whales.

SeaWorld witnesses included San Diego park President John Riley, who stressed the economic importance of SeaWorld to that city and the state, and Dr. Christopher Dold, V.P. of veterinarian services at SeaWorld, who argued that all the park’s animals receive the best care possible and that efforts to study killer whales would be severely handicapped if they were kept somewhere outside the parks.

Much of the debate centered on the bill’s requirements for the 10 orcas in San Diego to be retired to sea pens. Critics said there was no set date for such a transfer, no sea pens had been identified, and no provision had been made to finance such a major undertaking.

Scott Weltch, the attorney representing SeaWorld, made the biggest waves. He charged that such a law would constitute a “classic taking under the Fifth Amendment, as it deprives SeaWorld of the economic value of these whales,” and warned that such a measure would “expose the state to hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution: If you ban them, you buy them.”

If the law passed, “my client would have no choice but…to move these whales immediately to Texas and parks throughout the world,” he said ominously. “This is a silly, silly bill, and we urge you to cast a ‘no’ vote.”

Voices of support for and opposition to the legislation, A.B. 2140, also came from the public. One by one, more than 85 people, including teachers and activists from all over California and beyond, lined up at the microphone to express support for the measure.

On the opposing side, 20 people stood up to speak against the bill, almost all of them representatives of zoos, aquariums, travel associations, and business groups.

It’s possible that Rendon sent the bill into a study period because he does not have the votes to get it passed, especially without more details on how sea-pen retirement would work. He stressed that “all stakeholders” in the debate would have an opportunity to make their arguments, including, perhaps, at public hearings.

It’s also clear that the chairman already has his mind made up. “I am fundamentally opposed,” he stated at the hearing’s close. “I am ethically opposed to keeping any large animals in captivity.”