What Will SeaWorld Do? Four Potential Moves
by Laura Bridgeman
Campaign and Communications Specialist
International Marine Mammal Project
Earth Island Institute
That is the question on everyone’s minds ever since the California Coastal Commission hearing on October 8th: What will SeaWorld do?
The Commission hearing was held to decide whether to allow a permit for SeaWorld’s Blue World project, a $100 million endeavor that would substantially increase the size of the company’s current orca tanks, albeit still providing far less room for orcas than they experience in the wild.
The Commission decided that it would allow the project on the conditions that SeaWorld stop all breeding activities and seriously restrict the movement of orcas into and out of the park. This puts quite a damper on SeaWorld’s money-hungry plans, and is considered an important victory for the captive whales, as it would result in phasing out captive orcas in California.
So, what will SeaWorld do? We have sketched out a few different scenarios below:
1. Appeal the Decision / Sue the Commission
This is something that many experts are guessing will happen. SeaWorld can (and has) called into question the Commission’s authority in enacting a breeding ban. The big questions is whether the 1966 federal Animal Welfare Act allows the Commission authority over the care and management of captive orcas in California. Certainly SeaWorld’s attorneys have repeatedly threatened litigation during the Coastal Commission review of their tank expansion permit.
But SeaWorld should realize that the Commission’s decision is simply a reflection of public opinion and shifting values – those of orca freedom, not captivity.
Such legal action would show that SeaWorld is more interested in breeding orcas with the Blue World project than increasing the size of the tanks to make more room for their existing orcas. SeaWorld’s hypocrisy would receive wide attention through the media if they take the steps to sue.
If they do decide to initiate legal actions right away, the Blue World project will be delayed and, coupled with its mounting legal fees, could result in serious pressure from SeaWorld shareholders. SeaWorld is already carrying heavy debts and is also being sued by a number of individuals (including one lawsuit supported by Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project).
2. Build Blue World, then Sue the Commission
SeaWorld might want to take advantage of the fact that they’ve secured the permit and begin construction, delaying their appeal or suing the Commission until the issue of breeding orcas in San Diego becomes a real issue. The risk there, of course, is that if they eventually loose in court, they will have simply bigger tanks – bad for their business model of maintaining their orca circus shows into the future.
3. Build Blue World and Accept the Conditions
This would also be a good option for the orcas – it would mean that the current orcas in captivity at SeaWorld San Diego would be the last in California. Once the current orcas pass on, SeaWorld would not be able to procure any more or breed any to sell to other facilities.
4. Do Nothing
SeaWorld could decide to take no action and reject the permit, maintaining their California orcas with the present facilities, and no longer bound by Coastal Commission conditions.
However, once again, SeaWorld risks public opinion by dropping a project they have argued is important for the welfare of their orcas.
Whatever way SeaWorld turns, they face a bad situation. Any legal defeat would be devastating. If SeaWorld is successful in overturning the breeding ban, it is possible that another bill might come back to life with renewed vigor in the state legislature – for instance, California Assemblymember Richard Bloom’s bill (originally AB 2140 – the bill would be assigned a new number if reintroduced) which sought to ban orca performances and phase out orcas in captivity throughout California.
Ultimately, as Dan McSwain said perfectly in the San Diego Tribune: “Seaworld executives would compound earlier mistakes if they treat this decision as just another bureaucratic overreach by nutty California.” It is clear that the tide of public opinion is turning away from seeing cetaceans in captivity, and “the sooner SeaWorld accepts this market reality, the sooner one of San Diego’s great tourist attractions will stop sinking.”
Photo of SeaWorld's orca circus act by Mark J. Palmer/Earth Island Institute.