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California agency votes to bar SeaWorld orca breeding

California Coastal Commission OKs expansion of controversial tanks but prohibits SeaWorld from breeding captive orcas

A California agency has approved a $100 million expansion of the tanks SeaWorld uses to hold killer whales in San Diego — but it has also banned the park from breeding captive orcas.

The California Coastal Commission added that amendment on Thursday as it approved a controversial expansion that would triple the size of the current killer whale enclosures. The expanded "Blue World" exhibit is set to open in 2018.

Animal rights activists praised the decision as a death blow to the use of killer whales at the California ocean park.

The no-breeding vote "ensures that no more orcas will be condemned to a nonlife of loneliness, deprivation and misery," said a statement from People from the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"These 11 orcas would be the last 11 orcas there," PETA lawyer Jared Goodman said after the meeting.

The last-minute amendment would ban breeding of captive orcas, including through artificial insemination, at the California park but not at SeaWorld facilities in other states.

The amendment does provide a potential exemption for certain whales caught in the wild but it wasn't immediately clear whether that applied to any of the orcas at the San Diego park.

In a statement, SeaWorld said it was disappointed by the conditions attached to the approval of its "Blue World" expansion, set to open in 2018, which would triple the size of existing killer whale enclosures.

The plan drew heated opposition from animal rights groups who say the new tanks will lead to more captivity for orcas. Their living conditions were depicted in a documentary "Blackfish."

Released in 2013, the film chronicled the killing of trainer Dawn Brancheau by a killer whale named Tilikum, which allegedly experienced stress in captivity at SeaWorld. The company that owns the amusement park, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, says on their website that the film "conveys falsehoods, manipulates viewers emotionally and relies on questionable filmmaking techniques to create 'facts' that support its point of view." Killer whales are also known as orcas and are part of the dolphin family.

The commission that regulates land and water use along the California coast issued a report last month in favor of allowing SeaWorld to go ahead with the new project. Today’s hearing, which started at around 10 a.m., and ended in an evening vote after public comments concluded, will allow the amusement park to replace a 1.7 million gallon pool with a 450,000 gallon pool, and construct a new 5.2 million gallon pool.  

In a statement about the proposed expansion, SeaWorld said that it “allows us to enhance educational programs for our guests and students, and provides even greater research opportunities for scientists to help protect whales in the wild.”

Many animal rights advocates are outraged.

“The only appropriate expansion of a tank at SeaWorld would probably have to be 100 miles long, because that’s how much wild orcas swim a day the wild,” said Michael Harris, a board member at the Orca Conservancy, a nonprofit group in Washington state. “These are the most socially advanced creatures on the planet … To put them in a confined environment like this, it’s just cruel.”

The commission’s report in favor of the expansion mentions a pledge by SeaWorld that the facility “will not house any killer whales taken from the wild after February 12, 2014.” The report goes onto say: “Therefore, the project avoids the possibility that approval of this facility could contribute to demand for capturing orcas that frequent California’s coastal waters.”

Despite that concession, animal rights advocates say that even captive-born orcas should not be kept in tanks.

Dozens of people spoke for and against the expansion during the day-long hearing that preceded the vote. Reuters reported that a spokeswoman from the California Coastal Commission said that the agency received unprecedented levels of feedback on the proposal, in the form of letters, postcards and emails.

Colleen Gorman, CEO of The Orca Project, a nonprofit that focuses on raising awareness about marine mammals in captivity, said “Blackfish” has led to a major shift in public perception about SeaWorld's treatment of orcas.

SeaWorld’s profits have dropped 84 percent from the second quarter of 2014 to the second quarter of 2015, according to Time Magazine.

Gorman said she believes that SeaWorld should use the money meant for the expansion to phase out the captivity of their orcas and start rehabilitating and retiring the animals to sea sanctuaries.  

“So many of us believe that they don’t have to close down SeaWorld, they can just move in a new direction that is better suited for these whales that have been working so hard for years,” she said.

with wire services

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