This landmark decision follows the recent news of Tilikum, the park’s most prolific breeder’s deteriorating health, and comes three years after the release of the documentary Blackfish, which resulted in an uprising of anti-SeaWorld campaigns.
Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives proposed legislation to phase out orca captivity, and even the California Coastal Commission moved to ban orca breeding at SeaWorld San Diego. This only placed more pressure on the company, leading SeaWorld to phase out theatrical orca shows at their San Diego location.
In lieu of their orca breeding program, SeaWorld claims they will increase their focus on rescue operations to help stranded marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions who cannot be released back into the wild.
While SeaWorld’s current orcas will be the last generation of the mammals held in captivity at the parks, many believe the fight isn’t over yet, and are urging SeaWorld to take their move a step further by opening their tanks to ocean sanctuaries.
USA Today, Nathan Bomey
Embattled amusement-park operator SeaWorld Entertainment said Thursday that the killer whales currently living at its facilities will be its last as it will stop breeding them immediately and phase out theatrical orca shows.
The move comes nearly three years after SeaWorld came under pressure for its treatment of killer whales and their trainers in the documentary Blackfish.
The company had already announced plans to end killer-whale shows at its San Diego park following regulatory scrutiny in California.
SeaWorld will turn its attention to “new, inspiring, natural orca encounters” emphasizing enrichment, exercise and health while its killer whales are alive, CEO Joel Manby said on a conference call.
The orca shows will end at its San Diego park in 2017, while the San Antonio and Orlando parks will end the shows by 2019.
The company has been under heavy pressure from animal-rights activists, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other watchdog groups, to end shows and breeding.
“Today marks a bold and impactful shift for our company,” Manby said. “The killer whale issue is a growing reason why many people don’t visit SeaWorld and this is about doing the best thing for our orcas, our guests, our ambassadors and our company.”
The company, which said it has not collected any orcas from the wild in more than 40 years, said its orcas will live out their lives at SeaWorld. That includes one pregnant orca named Takara.
“They will continue to receive the highest-quality care based on the latest advances in marine veterinary medicine, science, and zoological best practices,” SeaWorld said in a statement. “Guests will be able to observe these orcas through the new educational encounters and in viewing areas within the existing habitats.”
PETA, which has called for SeaWorld to move its orcas to sanctuaries, hailed the move.
“PETA has campaigned hard, and now there is a payoff for future generations of orcas,” PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk said in a statement. “SeaWorld must open its tanks to the oceans to allow the orcas it now holds captive to have some semblance of a life outside these prison tanks.”
SeaWorld also Thursday announced a new partnership with long-time critic Humane Society of the United States to create educational programs and advocate for the health and welfare of marine life. The company said it would spend $50 million over five years to rescue animals and fight commercial fishing of whales and seals and fight shark-finning.
We did not want to be endlessly mired with conflict with SeaWorld. The goal is to make progress for animal welfare,” Humane Society of the United States CEO Wayne Pacelle said on a conference call. “In a culture where so many people are deeply concerned with animals, every corporation with animals at the center of its business model must focus on animal welfare. I think it’s a great move by SeaWorld.”
SeaWorld has been struggling with an image problem and corresponding attendance issues in the wake of Blackfish. The company has turned to discounts to juice attendance and a marketing campaign to restore its image, which has suffered heavy setbacks — particularly in California.
SeaWorld Chief Financial Officer Peter Crage said the company expects financial benefits from the move based on consumer surveys showing support for the move. Over the next three to five years, the company is projecting an attendance increase of 380,000 to 940,000, revenue uptick of $20 million to $80 million and pre-tax profit increase of $25 million to $65 million.
The percentage of consumers who would consider visiting SeaWorld after this decision jumped from 5 to 17 percentage points, Crage said.
After the decision was announced early Thursday, social-media sentiment about SeaWorld turned positive for the first time since Manby joined in March 2015, he said.
“The guests just want to observe and learn and we don’t need these theatrical quote-unquote tricks,” Manby said.
SeaWorld shares (SEAS) jumped 5% to $17.90 at 10:03 a.m.
Manby acknowledged that the matter has also been controversial internally but expressed hope that the decision would reduce the amount of time the company is spending addressing it.
“I can’t tell you how much this orca issue has clouded us from being able to focus on the day-to-day business,” he said.
The move marks the latest significant shakeup at SeaWorld since Manby’s appointment about a year ago.
Manby recently overhauled his management team, replacing the company’s chief parks operations officer, chief zoological officer and San Antonio park director.
The company also last month admitted that some of its employees had posed as animal-rights activists and that it had ended the practice — an acknowledgment that came after PETA last year accused a San Diego park worker spying on its anti-SeaWorld protests.
U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., one of the sponsors of legislation banning breeding of orcas for public display, praised SeaWorld’s decision.
“These changes are something that advocates have been urging for years, and I think SeaWorld will find that visitors will reward their actions with a renewed interest in the parks,” Schiff said in a statement.
Despite the strategic shift, orcas are likely to live at SeaWorld for many years to come.
The average male orca life span is about 30 years, though they can live up to 60, while the average female orca life span is 50 years and they can live up to 100, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But a 1995 study showed that the mortality rate for orcas living in captivity is 2.5 times higher than orcas living in the wild, according to the Animal Welfare Institute.
Tilikum, the SeaWorld orca whose troubles were chronicled in the documentary, issuffering from a bacterial infection in his lungs, SeaWorld said last week.
The orca, which was linked to the death of a SeaWorld employee, is facing deteriorating health.
Animal Welfare Institute marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose said only one captive orca — Keiko, which inspired the 1993 movie Free Willy — has been released to the wild, though he remained dependent on caretakers.
“So I personally believe they all can be retired to sea pen sanctuaries – bigger and more natural spaces,” Rose said in an email. “But I do not feel most are candidates for full release. I hope one day SeaWorld will understand that what we are proposing will allow them to continue to care for and, frankly, profit from their orcas and come around to our view.”