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California State Assembly seeks more time to review Orca Welfare and Safety Act

For those of us watching the live feed of the California legislative hearing on Assembly member Bloom’s orca bill (AB 2140) at the State Capitol in Sacramento, it was clear that an overwhelming number of Californians support passage of the bill. Mothers, teachers, business owners, labor interests, organizational representatives, and unaffiliated individuals of the public filed past the microphone and proclaimed their complete support for AB 2140, alongside individuals from other countries that flew in to physically present their support of the bill at the hearing.

Not only was public sentiment overwhelmingly in support of the bill, but the Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee chair, Anthony Rendon, made it clear that he supports passage of the bill and recommended a ‘yes’ vote to Assembly members on moral and ethical grounds alone.

In contrast, the main opponents of the bill were much fewer in number, and represented primarily the zoo and aquarium associations, retailers, and hoteliers concerned about tourism dollars that might be jeopardized by a new SeaWorld business model. A few orca trainers were present to assure the Assembly that despite decades of work with orcas, they had never been injured. For all intents and purposes, however, constituent support for the bill appeared to outweigh its detractors.

The bill as proposed does a number of things that will encourage a permanent end to orca captivity within California over time. AB 2140 prohibits 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, and import of orcas 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. 

One of the primary obstacles to garnering full Committee support appears to be the lack of clarity surrounding the sea pen rehabilitation and retirement provision of the bill. Current language of the proposed bill does not specify timeframes for establishment of such sea pen facilities that will be open to the public nor identification of responsibility for the implementation of these mandated retirement or rehabilitation plans. One might argue that the presumptive and ultimate responsibility lies with SeaWorld as current caretakers of those 10 orcas in captivity to which this bill applies, and that the AB 2140 does not need to clarify the details of who will establish these sea pens, where they will be located, and under what timeframes.

However, it is clear from the responses offered by several of the Assembly members who might otherwise have supported the bill that the sea pen provision needs further specification to instill confidence in the Assembly that the bill can credibly and practically be implemented, while delineating clear channels of accountability and responsibility for the welfare of these orcas in transition. Naturally, SeaWorld lobbyist Scott Wetch expressed concerns about the lack of clarity in the bill and its failure to outline details regarding the sea pen provisions, suggesting that the vague language about timeframes for retirement and who is responsible for leading these efforts sets SeaWorld up for failure and a barrage of lawsuits if the bill’s provisions are not met. Wetch even suggested that ‘those that ban [orcas], buy them,’ suggesting that the bill’s proponents should foot the bill for its implementation, warning of the unintended consequences for orcas resulting from the unknowns surrounding their future care in more natural sea pen facilities.

We must not let the challenges and uncertainties surrounding the provision for retirement to sea pens scuttle the broader support for the incremental phase-out of orca captivity through prohibitions on imports, wild captures, and captive breeding. The expertise to site, develop, and maintain sea pen facilities is available and can be channeled in support of the bill’s provisions. 

At the end of testimony, tallying of witness support or opposition to the bill from those stakeholders present in the committee chambers, and responses from Assembly members, the Chair reasonably stated that ‘30 minutes of debate’ is not adequate to address the issues raised by the bill, and recommended that the bill be referred to ‘interim study’ by the Committee. Such a process would be open to all stakeholders, may include public hearings on the issue, and would result in a committee report to be completed by ‘the middle of next year.’ Considering time for review and completion of the study by the Committee, as well as legislative calendars, the bill may be in limbo for up to 18 months while this process ensues. During this time, the proposed bill may also be modified to ensure its final passage.

By recommending this interim review process by the Committee, Chair Rendon made it very clear that the bill is important enough to seriously consider and to direct the assembly to invest the time to conduct the due diligence necessary to address implementation and other concerns associated with the bill. Through what should be viewed as a positive outcome and a conciliatory approach in recognition of all stakeholder interests, Chair Rendon provides an opportunity for ongoing dialogue on the issue of orcas in captivity and additional opportunity to inform and better prepare Assembly members to vote positively in support of the bill’s passage through committee.

From my perspective, one of the most important outcomes of this first hearing, beyond the opportunity to further inform the Assembly about the truths behind captivity, is the closing statement of Chair Rendon who ended the session with his proclamation that orca captivity is a moral and ethical issue, and that his position against the continuation of this practice will not be swayed by business interests, or the rhetoric and inaccuracies of both sides of this debate: the bottom line is that the captivity of orcas is morally and ethically wrong. Such a definitive statement of support for the bill on philosophical grounds alone was a welcomed and profound line in the sand that cuts through the name-calling, conflicting information, and propaganda that has colored the anti-captivity debate for decades, and that effectively sealed the Committee’s commitment to continue the bipartisan dialogue and interim review of the bill’s provisions required to move it into law.

WDC applauds the leadership of Assemblymen Bloom and Rendon, and welcomes the opportunity to provide additional information to Assembly members regarding the facts surrounding captivity, as well as the timeliness, feasibility, and practicalities of implementing such an historic piece of legislation as the interim review proceeds.

We will keep you posted as we continue to seek the safe passage of AB 2140 into law.