California Makes New Move to Ban Orca Captivity

A bill passed in the state Assembly would prohibit the holding of killer whales except for ‘educational’ purposes.
(Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Jun 21, 2016· 2 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 Assembly has overwhelmingly approved a bill that would ban orca captivity for “display, performance, or entertainment purposes,” a move that activists hope will inspire similar actions in other states.

Legislators approved the California Orca Protection Act, a rider to an Assembly budget bill, on Thursday by a vote of 48–28, mostly along party lines, with Democrats favoring the legislation. Violators would face fines up to $100,000.

In addition to banning shows, the act also prohibits the breeding of any captive orca in California and makes it illegal to “export, collect, or import the semen, other gametes, or embryos of an orca held in captivity for the purpose of artificial insemination.”

The measure makes it illegal to export or sell an orca in California to another state or country unless authorized by federal law, or if the transfer “is to another facility within North America that meets standards comparable to those provided under the Animal Welfare Act.”

Under that provision, whales could be retired to sea sanctuaries in the United States or Canada, as envisioned by groups such as the Whale Sanctuary Project.

SeaWorld, though, has no intention of releasing any of its animals.

“Could it be done to move whales to sea cages? Yeah, it technically possibly could be done,” SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said during an investor conference call on Wednesday. “But is it the safest thing for our animals? We do not believe it is.”

There are significant exemptions to the legislation.

Orcas can be held in captivity as long as there is an “educational presentation,” which the act defines as “a live, scheduled orca display in the presence of spectators that includes natural behaviors, enrichment, exercise activities, and a live narration and video content that provides science-based education to the public.”

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SeaWorld, the only California facility holding captive orcas, announced in March that it would end its orca breeding program immediately and phase out shows by 2019 in favor of more natural and educational presentations.

Although the bill bans orca performances beginning Jan. 1, 2017, SeaWorld did not oppose the measure, according to Sean MacNeil, chief of staff to Assemblymember Richard Bloom, D–Santa Monica, who introduced the act.

The bill also permits orcas rescued from the wild to be held in captivity as long as the animals are returned to the ocean whenever possible. If that cannot happen, the orcas can be used for educational presentations but not for breeding or entertainment.

The act is similar to legislation that Bloom introduced earlier this year. In 2014, Bloom also introduced an orca ban bill, which was later withdrawn. That bill called for the retirement of killer whales to sea pens.

Although the bill codifies into law what SeaWorld has already vowed to do, MacNeil said the legislation was still significant.

“Businesses can change,” MacNeil said. “The board could hire a new CEO who wants a new direction. By setting this into law, that wouldn’t happen.”

MacNeil added that the legislation might prompt lawmakers in other states, especially Florida and Texas, where orcas are also held in captivity, to approve similar measures.

Courtney Vail, campaigns and programs manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said the act could lead to an end to orca captivity in the United States and elsewhere. Orcas in Russia, for instance, are being captured to supply China’s rapidly expanding marine park industry.

“We shouldn’t underestimate what that might mean to the movement globally and to the ultimate fate of other whale and dolphin species held in captivity,” Vail said. “Incremental progress is how the world will change.”

Although a similar rider was passed out of committee in the state Senate, it is not included in its budget legislation. Negotiations over the budget bill, however, are ongoing.

Kevin Liao, press secretary to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, said in an email that Rendon “hasn’t issued any thoughts on the latest budget development regarding orca captivity, but in the past has been very supportive of efforts to end the immoral practice of captive orca breeding.”

Gareth Lacy, a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown, said his office does not comment on pending legislation.

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction.

Correction (June 22, 2016): An earlier version of this article misstated the year Assemblymember Richard Bloom introduced legislation to ban orca captivity. It was 2016.