In a major concession to critics and animal welfare groups, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Inc. says it will stop breeding captive killer whales.
SeaWorld's treatment of its killer whales, or orcas, was put in the spotlight three years ago by Blackfish, a documentary that examined the death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by an orca named Tilikum. Since then, in a steady campaign on social media, critics have demanded SeaWorld end its orca breeding program.
In an agreement with the Humane Society of the United States, SeaWorld says it now will do so. In a news release, HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said, "Today's announcement signals that the era of captive display of orcas will end."
SeaWorld President and CEO Joel Manby said in the same news release, "As one of the largest rescue organizations in the world, we will increase our focus on rescue operations — so that the thousands of stranded marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions that cannot be released back to the wild will have a place to go."
The director of Blackfish, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, called it "a defining moment. The fact that SeaWorld is doing away with orca breeding marks truly meaningful change."
For SeaWorld, the agreement resolves an issue that has held up expansion of the company's San Diego theme park. Last year, the company announced it would phase out theatrical orca shows at SeaWorld, San Diego.
Plans for a new, expanded orca habitat were submitted for approval to a state regulatory body, the California Coastal Commission. The commission gave its approval, but only if the theme park agreed to end captive breeding of orcas. SeaWorld went to court, arguing in a lawsuit that the commission doesn't have the authority or the expertise to make such a demand.
But with today's announcement, SeaWorld is now agreeing to end captive breeding, not just in San Diego, but also at its two other SeaWorld parks, in San Antonio, Texas, and Orlando, Fla. It is a major concession that also signals a change in SeaWorld's business model.
On the company's blog, SeaWorld announced it is phasing out over the next three years theatrical performances featuring orcas.
"We will introduce new, inspiring, natural orca encounters rather than theatrical shows, as part of our ongoing commitment to education, marine science research and the rescue of marine animals."
SeaWorld has seen attendance decline at its three parks since the release of Blackfish. The company says the decline, in part, is because of the film. The stock price of the publicly traded company has dropped by more than half in the past three years.
Industry analysts say SeaWorld needs new attractions to compete with other theme parks, such as Walt Disney Parks & Resorts and Universal Studios Theme Parks. SeaWorld has several new roller coasters in the works and recently unveiled images of a new signature submarine ride it's planning in San Diego.
By ending captive breeding, SeaWorld is moving toward a future that eventually will no longer include orcas.
In what might be seen as an ironic twist, the announcement comes as SeaWorld and animal welfare activists are closely monitoring the health of Tilikum. SeaWorld says the orca appears to have a bacterial infection in its lungs that is resistant to treatment, and that its health is "deteriorating." Tilikum has been with SeaWorld for 23 years and is one of the park's most prolific breeders, siring more than 20 calves.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
SeaWorld says it will stop breeding captive killer whales. That is a huge concession to critics and animal welfare groups. The announcement comes this morning in an agreement between SeaWorld and the Humane Society. SeaWorld also says it will stop using orcas as performers and move, instead, to what the company calls educational shows in a more natural setting.
NPR's Greg Allen has been covering the long-running concerns about the killer whales at the water park, and he joins us on the line from Miami. Good morning.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So this is a major change for SeaWorld - ending captive breeding of killer whales. What's behind the decision?
ALLEN: Well, this has been quite some time in the making. It's a call that's really increased after the release of the documentary "Blackfish," which I'm sure you recall, a few years ago. Since then, park attendance has been down steadily and the company's stock prices really taken a hit.
SeaWorld says guest surveys, as conducted in San Diego, convinced them that they should move away from the traditional Shamu-style shows there, and so it already said it was going to do so. Now it appears to be doing it with its other parks. But this issue about - this decision to stop breeding orcas, of course, is the big one. There's more to that.
An important body in California, the California Coastal Commission, recently told SeaWorld that it could only go away with a planned expansion of its orca habitat if it ended captive breeding. The company was upset at that, didn't like it - went to court to fight the decision. But with today's announcement, SeaWorld appears to be agreeing with its critics and the regulators, saying that it is time to end the captive orca breeding program.
MONTAGNE: Right. He said they spoke of a last generation of orcas in our care. Does that mean no more?
ALLEN: Apparently so, at least in the U.S. There are other marine programs, theme parks, around the world that have orcas on display. SeaWorld has three parks in this country, and it says it's going to phase them out at all of its - orcas at its parks. But of course, orcas live for quite some time, at least 30 years. The lifespan has (laughter) actually been one of the many things under dispute.
And SeaWorld does not take part in wild orca captures, so they won't be pulling them in that way. But 30 more years, at least of, whales. And we'll see how they move them - what kind of display they put them in. But for the company, this is huge because they're moving away from these signature orca shows that have been part of SeaWorld for so long now.
Industry analysts had been pushing the company to actually add more major attractions, along the lines that you see at Disney and Universal Studios, to help them compete with those theme parks. So it looks like SeaWorld and its new CEO, Joel Manby, have been listening. They've added some new rides. Yeah, so the new direction.
MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly in the next few seconds - does - it seems to be an attempt to put the negative publicity - and there is plenty of it - from that movie "Blackfish" behind it.
ALLEN: Yeah, there's been a series of announcements that SeaWorld has done to try to put "Blackfish" behind it. None have really been successful. Ultimately, what the critics want is for SeaWorld to move its orcas to large, enclosed sea pens where they'll have more room to live and swim in a protected environment. SeaWorld has never consider that that I'm aware of.
But perhaps, coincidentally, in the last few weeks, there's been a lot of concern about one particular killer whale that's called Tilikum. That's the orca that killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, was at the center of the film "Blackfish." SeaWorld says Tilikum actually is very sick.
MONTAGNE: Greg, thanks very much. That's NPR's Greg Allen speaking to us from Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.