By Daniel Stanton
This week SeaWorld met with investors and analysts to discuss the future of the parks. In addition, they broadcasted the meeting as a webinar and Awesome Ocean listened in. There were a lot of exciting changes and directions for the future of all of the parks in the SeaWorld-Busch Gardens theme park family.
While financial profiles and forecasts were discussed, it was the future plans that really peaked everyone’s interests. The last few years have had its set of challenges in the wake of ‘Blackfish’ and activist attacks, but it looks like SeaWorld is in the beginning of a stabilization phase largely attributed to the diversity of their portfolio. SeaWorld Orlando continues to be it most profitable park and attendance continues to grow. The other two SeaWorld parks have had their own different sets of struggles. Sea World San Antonio has faced natural disasters and is only a seasonal park, while SeaWorld San Diego has seen its set of legal challenges coming off the back of the California Coastal Commission Hearing last month. Activists have also been extremely critical of this park and thus it has seen a drop in attendance.
While this is nothing new to the news, the facts surrounding SeaWorld San Diego and its legal battles tend to be skewed and facts are misused or misinterpreted.
California Legal Battles
The California Coastal Commission hearing was emotional on both sides. The ruling came as a shock as a second amendment was made after SeaWorld previously agreed to not take any whale out of the wild (which it has not done since the 1970’s) and even agreed to cap the number of Orcas that it would house in the Blue World project as proposed by Commissioner Cox. Because a commissioner did not second Commissioner Cox’s amendment, another amendment was heard and passed. Commissioner Bochco, which attained a second to the motion and passed with only Commissioner Cox the one in opposition. The final ruling was that the Blue World project could be approved with the constraint that no captive breeding can take place artificially or naturally. This was a major blow to SeaWorld that has since resulted in SeaWorld reconsidering the Blue World project due to the bad regulatory environment in California. Commissioner Bochco defended her position by stating that the decision was not pre-empted by any federal law and that there are no other state agencies regulating whales in human care. Afterward, she was seen taking photo-ops with Dr. Naomi Rose, an animal activist from the institute of Animal Welfare and Dr. Ingrid Visser, who actively swims with Orcas in the wild, which is illegal in US waters thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This clearly shows Commissioner Boncho’s ties with activist groups.
The commission used section 30230 for citing their jurisdiction in creating this amendment, which states, ” Marine resources shall be maintained, enhanced, and, where feasible, restored. Special protection shall be given to areas and species of special biological or economic significance. Uses of the marine environment shall be carried out in a manner that will sustain the biological productivity of coastal waters and that will maintain healthy populations of all species of marine organisms adequate for long-term commercial, recreational, scientific, and educational purposes.” This reads as if it applies to coastal environments and connecting waterways, not private facilities. The justification that the commission used is that wild orcas were captured 30 years ago from the ocean and therefor they and their offspring fall under this section. The reality is that these animals were not captured along the costal jurisdiction that the commission presides over. SeaWorld is right to sue the commission for overstepping their boundaries. Joel Manby stated that they had to seek legal recourse because this was a precedent. SeaWorld is highly regulated by outside accreditation agencies such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquarium, as well as government regulation by the USDA-APHIS and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In the end this was about permitting and the CCC’s own staff recommended the passing of the permit without any other restrictions other than that SeaWorld would not collect anymore whales from the wild with the exception being rescued whales. This hearing should not have gotten to the level of a political and debate forum. Thus the commission overstepped its boundaries to regulate permitting by attempting to regulate orcas in human care.
Anti-zoological activist are strong in number in California and put pressure on SeaWorld San Diego. This SeaWorld theme park is also the only park that rents land. Over the past few years, the legal team has been active on both sides. In the past two years the legal landscape has changed from one of passive support of human care facilities to sometimes volatile anti-zoological campaigns. PETA and the Animal Welfare Institute are the two organizations that head up anti-zoological campaigns. Lately politicians have joined the march and have allowed these campaigns to bias their decisions and create bills that would end the human care of orcas in California, but why not all zoological care or the human care of cetaceans? What a great question. The main reason why is that these extremist groups have plans to create sea pens for orcas and profit from them and use the funds to campaign and procure more orcas from other institutions.
The political landscape on human care has changed since the wake of Blackfish. Some politicians believe the lies of ‘Blackfish’ and biased studies from the Animal Welfare Institute over the sound scientific studies published in journals such as the Journal of Marine Mammal Science. And even in the off chance that they do read these articles, they either misinterpret or twist the conclusions presented in these articles. This then leads to politicians creating provisions that they do not have the power to make, such as the California Coastal Commission ruling, or they introduce poorly conceived bills banning orcs in human care in California, essentially signing the whales death certificate.
Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) introduced the first orca bill in 2014. That bill was tabled while the issue was researched and has not re-surfaced. A second bill scheduled to be introduced this year written by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank). The ORCA (Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement) bill proposes to phase out captive breeding in a manageable way. It would prevent wild capture and the import and export of orcas in California, essentially ensuring that the orcas at the SeaWorld San Diego park will be the last generation of orcas in human care in the state of California. The bill is also backed by State Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), Samantha Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer, and Dr. Naomi Rose. Because of the unstable and bad regulatory environment in California, SeaWorld is considering looking at other options instead of moving forward with the Blue World project, despite the outcome of lawsuits, litigation, or new laws.
Orca welfare has gotten the limelight from both the media and activist posts on social media. It is important to consider the welfare of all animals. However, it is not wise to think of animal welfare with anthropomorphic expectations. It is clear that animals feel sensations, but the emotions they perceive are species specific and we should not assign emotions that we have to an animal’s behavior. Correlation does not infer causation. For more on this, see How Do Animals Feel. Activists use anthropomorphic characteristics to describe an orcas behavior because it is relatable and to influence people so that they share activist views. Emotional states are the outcome of a readiness for action, cognition, and sensation. Emotion arose from higher cognitive interpretations of behaviors linked to primordial needs such as the need to eat, reproduce, expel waste, avoid injury, process environmental information, socialize, and deal with other species and threats.
The reality is that orcas live healthy and happy lives in human care and most don’t know any different because they were born and raised in human care. Disseminating information to the public is nothing short of a confusing web that requires a guided hand to understand. This is where activists live and prey on innocent people to sway them to share their views. This trend is even seen in scientific literature. There are two recent scientific papers that contradict one another. The secret lies in the authors and their data. John Jett and Jeffrey Ventre co-authored a paper entitled “Captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) survival” which was published in Marine Mammal Science last month. Their article concludes that there is a difference survival between wild and captive orcas and wild orcas live longer. Another article was written by Todd Robeck, Kevin Willis, Michael Scarpuzzi, and Justine O’Brien and was published in the Journal of Mammology, that contradict these findings. Their article entitled “Comparisons of life-history parameters between free-ranging and captive killer whale (Orcinus orca) populations for application toward species management” concluded that there was no significant difference in survival rates between captive and wild orcas. Which one is more accurate?
You are free to answer that question after you read the papers yourself, but there are some facts about the authors that may guide your decision. Jett and Ventre are both former SeaWorld trainers that have written for activist sites such as the Orca Project. They have only a few publications that can be found on Google Scholar.
Todd Robeck has over 70 publications and has published in prestigious journals such as the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine, Zoo Biology, Proceedings of the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine, and Animal Reproduction Science just to name a few. Kevin Willis has over 30 published articles, Michael Scarpuzzi has 25 published articles, and Justine O’Brein has over 10 published articles. All of these articles are studies in marine mammals, specifically cetaceans. While it appears that one group clearly has more experience with cetacean biology and have published their findings in multiple high profile journals, the media, activists, and social media only talk about the first article published by two former SeaWorld trainers that are clearly anti-zoological supporters.
If a breeding ban does take place in California, it is not the best decision for the orcas. It is nothing more than a political and activist power play to regulate what SeaWorld can and cannot do. It is directed so that the activist can create their own sea pens and profit form orcas the same way SeaWorld profits now. The difference is that there are not any plans for activist to use profits for rescue and rehabilitation like SeaWorld does. If a breeding ban is put in place it is not advantageous for the whales because birth control methods have been poorly explored. There is not enough scientific research to show their efficacy and determine if there are any long-term effects. For specifics on cetacean and pinniped breeding management see AwesomeResearch. It will be irresponsible for politicians to pass a bill without looking at what long-term effects birth control use in orcas. At this point, the decision to ban breeding is not in the animals best interests Not to mention that because these animals are social, separation is not recommended.
The Future of Orca Shows at SeaWorld San Diego
The longevity of orca shows in San Diego is unknown at this time. There has not been any announcement or plans of a future announcement that indicates SeaWorld is ending orca shows. One thing that is clear, the show concept will see drastic changes within the next year. 2016 is the last year for One Ocean orca show at SeaWorld San Diego. The show will be replaced with a more natural orca show that will be designed to display natural orca behaviors and centered on a conservation driven message. The conservation message will include tips guests can do at home and in their daily lives. It will be designed to empower guests to make a difference no matter where they are and that every action made will help to save wild orcas and other wildlife from man-made endangerment. It will be a unique concept that will empower people to make a difference for the environment and still allow them to connect and care for orcas and other species found at SeaWorld parks. It is clear that SeaWorld is willing to listen to its guests. Orca shows at SeaWorld’s sister parks are not affected by this change and will continue to have theatrical style shows, which guests have responded positively to. Joel Manby echoed this sentiment in an email release to SeaWorld supporters stating that the new orca show is only for the San Diego park.
This is in no way giving into activist demands because there will still be an orca show. It will just be something different than SeaWorld has ever done, which is exciting. It is just another way for SeaWorld to evolve their brand. One of the problems with the current market is that SeaWorld is not positioned well against competing markets because of a lack of focus. This year and next year SeaWorld will do a lot in its parks to make them more focused on the unique opportunity that it affords its guests; the ability to connect to animals that most people would not have an opportunity to see. In addition, SeaWorld will be allocating money for new rides and experiences in all three parks. The fate of the Blue World project is unknown. It is clear that the company is re-considering its options and the money allocated to the project. That does not mean that the other two parks will not see Blue World in their future. Only time will tell.
One thing was clear during the call. SeaWorld is stabilizing and has big plans for the future. There will always be activists and they will never be satisfied with SeaWorld despite what efforts are made to scientifically show the advancements and knowledge that comes from the captive animals that call SeaWorld home. SeaWorld will continue to do what they do best, stay on the forefront of animal care, rescue and rehabilitate marine life, help their guests learn about conservation and how they can make a difference, help their guests care about animals and their habitats, and connect with animals so that they can get excited about saving them for generations to come. Despite the challenges SeaWorld has faced and is currently facing, the prognosis for SeaWorld looks good. SeaWorld’s diversified portfolio has helped them to stabilize and to evolve as they move toward the future toward a more focus branding. One thing is clear, SeaWorld will always focus on animals first and continue to provide great care and lead the way in marine mammal medicine, rescue, and rehabilitation.
Daniel Stanton has a passion for animals and conservation. He holds a Master’s of Science Degree in Biology from Winthrop University where he did his thesis on the evolution of circadian clock genes in the lower Metazoa. He is a Sr. Biological Scientist, and has experience in various areas of biology. Mr. Stanton has presented his research at many scientific meetings and worked on many scientific publications in collaboration with fellow researchers. He believes that one person can make a difference and create a wave of positive change.