SeaWorld announced today that it will stop breeding its captive orca whales, effectively making the current killer whales the last generation at its marine wildlife theme parks. Most of its whales have been born in captivity as the parks stopped capturing whales in the wild decades ago.
The company’s treatment of its orcas has faced a barrage of highly public attacks from animal rights groups for years, particularly since 2013 when the controversial documentary Blackfish telling the story of bull orca Tilkum was released.
This latest move seeks to reverse the park’s fortunes after consecutive annual tumbles in attendance numbers and the company’s stock price. In the last complete fiscal accounts, revenue and attendance fell from $405 million and 6.58 million visitors in 2014 to $392 million and 6.48 million visitors in 2015.
There are 23 remaining orcas at SeaWorld’s parks in the United States, including 11 whales in San Diego, seven in Orlando, and five in San Antonio. They will live the rest of their lives at SeaWorld as they are unable to survive in the wild.
“SeaWorld has not collected an orca from the wild in almost 40 years, and the vast majority of our orcas were born under human care,” reads a company statement. “These orcas have never lived in the wild and could not survive in oceans that include environmental concerns such as pollution and other man-made threats.”
In the meantime, there are already plans to spend $100 million on constructing a new and expanded tank for the orcas living in San Diego by 2018. The so-called Blue World project, announced in 2014, will double the size of the living environment and enable park visitors to walk on a beach-like environment.
It should be noted that SeaWorld’s new ‘last generation’ policy was also likely motivated by California’s state government requirement that SeaWorld stop breeding any of its orcas in exchange for the approval of its Blue World project.
As part of its new direction, the company says it will shift some its focus from entertainment to expanded conservation, rehabilitation, and rescue efforts. This adds on to last year’s decision to end the famous orca whale show in San Diego.
“SeaWorld takes seriously its responsibility to preserve marine wildlife,” said Joel Manby, president and CEO of SeaWorld, in a statement. “As one of the largest rescue organizations in the world, we will increase our focus on rescue operations— so that the thousands of stranded marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions that cannot be released back to the wild will have a place to go.”
The decision was even praised by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish: “This is a defining moment. The fact that SeaWorld is doing away with orca breeding marks truly meaningful change.”
Animal rights activists have also attacked the Vancouver Aquarium for the captivity and breeding of its beluga whales and dolphins, which were all either bred, rescued and deemed non-releasable, or from another facility.
In the summer of 2014, the Vision Vancouver-dominated Vancouver Park Board approved a motion to ban both the natural and artificial breeding of dolphins and whales at the Aquarium. However, this was not enacted by the new Non-Partisan Association majority elected later that year.
The Aquarium argued that all breeding of cetaceans is natural and ‘banning’ them, through isolation, would be cruel. In 2001, it transported its last captive orca, Bjossa, to SeaWorld San Diego, where she died soon after from respiratory failure.