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Good Things are ‘Bloom’ing in California: New Bill Seeks to Ban Orca Captivity

State by state and measure by measure, we may be seeing the end of orcas in captivity. In a move that is certain to mobilize SeaWorld’s corporate lobbyists and send them scurrying to the State Capitol in Sacramento, a new piece of legislation revealed today in California seeks to ban orcas from being held in captivity for entertainment purposes. With a new state legislative session underway, the bill will provide an opportunity for lawmakers to voice their support for reform at public display facilities that hold orcas. In California, this bill would currently only apply to SeaWorld in San Diego, but would prevent Six Flags in Vallejo from holding performing orcas in the future.

The proposed bill drafted by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) does a number of things that will encourage a permanent end to orca captivity within California, while foreseeably having a knock-on effect for captivity worldwide. The proposed measure will prohibit the use or confinement of a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance or entertainment purposes. It will also prevent the capture of orcas in state waters, or import from another state. Captive breeding will also be prohibited under the bill. And finally, the bill calls for the rehabilitation and return to the wild those orcas currently held for performance purposes wherever possible, and permanent retirement to sea pens for those that cannot be returned. The bill exempts the holding of orcas for rescue or research purposes, but mandates rehabilitation and return to the wild where possible and using best available science. Violations of the bill’s provisions, if it becomes law, will result in fines of up to US$100,000 and up to six months in a county jail.

Regardless of whether it becomes law, the bill may empower other states to take similar measures to address captivity. South Carolina already has a law prohibiting the public display of whales and dolphins established in 1992. Maui County, Hawaii, passed a similar measure in 2002. More recently, a senator from New York, Greg Ball, introduced a bill that seeks to prohibit the confinement of killer whales in aquariums and ‘sea parks’ for any reason.  And in late February, the City of Malibu, California issued a formal proclamation acknowledging the intelligent and emotional lives of whales and dolphins, and their right to freedom and safe passage in the worlds’ oceans.

However, this bill coming from the Golden State may just be the measure that launches a new-day ‘gold rush’ of initiatives to prohibit the captivity of orcas for commercial purposes. With a David-and-Goliath type courage in proposing a bill that will undoubtedly rile one of the state’s tourism giants and the holder of all captive orcas in the state (SeaWorld), representative Bloom is paving the way for others to challenge the ethics, safety, and environmental responsibility of the world’s most influential corporate entities involved with whale and dolphin captivity. Empowered by Bloom’s example, I am certain we will see similar measures coming from representatives in Florida and Texas where orcas continue to languish in captivity.

A tweet by San Diego Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez sums it up nicely in a recent Facebook post reacting to the proposed legislation: “SeaWorld’s reputation of treating its workers poorly dates back to its opening 50 years ago. It’s about time we continue this conversation about job quality and workplace safety at SeaWorld – whether it involves groundskeepers, concessions workers or killer whale trainers. Recent evidence suggests its record with orcas isn’t much better. I’m looking forward to having an honest conversation about SeaWorld’s business practices and how they can really be an icon that makes San Diego proud.”

This bill, if passed, does not have to mean the end of SeaWorld. It just means that the public has awoken to the fact that orcas don’t belong in captivity, and legislators—with the support of their constituents– are empowered to address the real risks associated with these facilities, for both the trainers and orcas in these programs. SeaWorld is being presented with yet another opportunity to get honest about its captive orca programs: the track record of orca and human mortality at captive facilities is irrefutable. It is time for SeaWorld to adapt, and come along with the rest of the world and take the stand for orcas.

We have turned the corner, and the public dialogue on orcas in captivity has reached new heights and spawned a groundswell of grassroots initiatives targeting this practice. The bill may not make it through the California legislature intact, but regardless of the path it is about to travel, public sentiment against captivity for whales and dolphins is indeed blooming and there is no time like the present to proclaim, declare, enact, and codify the incremental steps that will change the way we view and treat our ocean kindred.

The bill was announced at a press conference on Friday, March 7 at Santa Monica Pier with the support of former SeaWorld trainers Carol Ray and John Hargrove, the director of Blackfish Gabriela Cowperthwaite, and orca scientist Dr. Naomi Rose.