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SeaWorld faces an orca breeding ban in San Diego

By Svati Kirsten Narula

SeaWorld has been taking a major drubbing from animal rights activists and the broader public in the last few years, and the marine theme park is now running into major opposition from California regulators.

SeaWorld San Diego has been granted approval to build larger tanks for its killer whales—but only if it promises to stop breeding the whales. The California Coastal Commission, whose permission is needed if SeaWorld wants to expand a $100 million habitat where it keeps 11 orcas in captivity, voted in favor of the expansion yesterday (Oct. 9) but made it conditional on no future breeding or animal transfers.

SeaWorld and many other theme parks that hold orcas to attract visitors do not capture the animals in the wild anymore, so they rely on their current populations of orcas to breed and birth new whales in the parks, including the occasional use of artificial insemination. In addition to banning breeding at SeaWorld San Diego, the coastal commission would ban the transfer of orcas between the San Diego park and other SeaWorld parks. That essentially puts an eventual end date on SeaWorld’s orca program in San Diego: The 11 orcas the park has now would be its last.

Animal rights activists, who turned out in droves for the commission’s all-day hearing, cheered the decision as a morally correct step.”The commission’s action today ensures that no more orcas will be condemned to a nonlife of loneliness, deprivation, and misery,” said People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), in a statement released after the vote.

Many of those concerned for orca welfare had encouraged the commission to vote “no” on the habitat expansion, disputing SeaWorld’s argument that larger tanks could mitigate the harm of raising whales in captivity for entertainment purposes. Commissioner Dayna Bochco added the no-breeding stipulation, according to the New York Times, because she believes that whales “don’t belong in captivity.”

“We’re disappointed by the conditions placed on our permit and we are considering our options,” a SeaWorld spokesperson told Quartz.

 “A ban on breeding would sentence these animals to a slow extinction in our care,” said SeaWorld San Diego president John Reilly, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Breeding is a natural, fundamental and important part of an animal’s life, and depriving a social animal of the right to reproduce is inhumane,” the company added in a statement.

SeaWorld lawyers have argued the California Coastal Commission does not have jurisdiction to restrict breeding or the transfer of the park’s whales, but it’s unclear whether or not they’ll go to court to try to have the decision overturned.

It’s also unclear whether or not SeaWorld will move forward with the habitat expansion project, which would more than double the amount of tank space allotted for its orcas. Both SeaWorld and its opponents agree that larger tanks would improve the welfare of the orcas.