In a stunning victory, the California Coastal Commission conditioned SeaWorld San Diego’s expansion of orca tanks (called by SeaWorld the “Blue World Project”) on SeaWorld ending breeding or moving captive orcas into California, effectively telling SeaWorld to phase out captive orcas.
Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project and other groups including PETA, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Welfare Institute, Humane Society of the US, Sierra Club California and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, had urged the Commission, in an overflowed hearing in Long Beach, CA, to deny SeaWorld their permit request or condition the permit on the amendment they eventually adopted.
The amendment was crafted and presented to the Commission by former California Coastal Commissioner Sara Wan with the lawyers from Animal Legal Defense Fund.
SeaWorld was out in force at the hearing, busing in 300 supporters (including many paid employees) who supported the Blue World project. More than 200 opponents led to a packed hearing room, with many unable to get in the room due to a lack of seats and fire marshal restrictions.
A letter signed by scientists including Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Lori Marino, Dr. Toni Frohoff, Dr. Paul Spong, Jean-Michele Cousteau, and others had been submitted prior to the hearing endorsing the condition approved by the Commission. See the letter.
The hearing began with a presentation in favor of Blue World by several representatives of SeaWorld, who took the time to blast opponents, accuse activists of lying, and condemning the former SeaWorld orca trainers who have spoken out against SeaWorld’s treatment and confinement of orcas.
This was followed by excellent presentations against captivity by Dr. Ingrid Visser, a world expert on wild orcas from New Zealand, and Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute. Lawyers from Animal Legal Defense Fund and PETA outlined the legal reasons why the Commission could and should either deny the project or condition the project on protecting the welfare of captive orcas. Former SeaWorld senior orca trainer John Hargrove spoke about what goes on inside SeaWorld, urging the Commissioners to deny the permit.
I spoke for Earth Island while Michael Reppy, Lisa Robles and other volunteers brought out the huge Free Corky Banner behind me for the Commission. Corky is a female orca at SeaWorld San Diego and is believed to be 51 years old. Her home pod, including her brothers and sisters, from which she had been torn when captured, have been identified in British Columbia by scientists, and many believe Corky (along with Lolita at the Miami Seaquarium) could be returned to her home waters in a sea pen, rehabilitated, and eventually released to join her family once again.
In my testimony, I told the Commission that they could not trust the word of SeaWorld. I noted the many credible people and organizations speaking out against orca captivity, citing the letter signed by scientists and the former SeaWorld trainers, who were certainly not animal rights activists when they worked and SeaWorld and then became disillusioned.
Sara Wan presented her reasoning behind her proposed condition for an end to any breeding of orcas at SeaWorld San Diego and restrictions on SeaWorld moving any new orcas in or out of California, which would result eventually in phasing out captive orcas in California. An exception was made for SeaWorld to bring in any stranded or injured orca, to be rehabilitated and returned to the ocean.
The Commission adopted the condition by voting 11-1 in favor.
In the end, it came down to the persuasiveness of environmental and animal welfare leaders along with the wonderful comments from the many grassroots activists in the hearing. SeaWorld had filled the room, but few of its supporters spoke before the Commission. Several supporters chose to denigrate their detractors rather than speak to the benefits of the Blue World tank expansion for their captive orcas.
It is not clear what SeaWorld will do next. They could go forward to build Blue World with the Coastal Commission conditions, or they could abandon the project or sue the Commission, contending the Commission lacks jurisdiction to restrict the husbandry of captive orcas. Earth Island and other groups will be closely watching the results and will take action as necessary.
We made the case that orcas do not belong in captivity. And the California Coastal Commission agreed and took a giant step.
Thank you to all who wrote letters & emails to the Commission, and to the many who took time out to come to the hearing in Long Beach. We appreciate your support for the captive orcas of SeaWorld.
Photos from California Coastal Commission hearing by Michael Reppy and Mark J. Palmer/Earth Island Institute.