Orca bill would end SeaWorld's 'Shamu shows'

If approved, the legislation would ensure that 'this will be the last generation of orcas who live in captivity,' Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California says.

Handout/Reuters/File
An artist's rendering of Sea World's new killer whale habitat expansion project, Blue World, is shown in this handout provided by Sea World, September 25, 2015. The California Coastal Commission on Thursday is set to vote on a plan by SeaWorld San Diego to build larger tanks for its killer whales, which has drawn opposition from tens of thousands of people who say the orcas should be released instead.

The next generation of orca whales may never know show business, with proposed federal legislation that goes directly after SeaWorld and its now much-maligned "Shamu Show". 

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Congressman from Southern California, announced Friday that he plans to introduce a bill this month that would end breeding captive orcas, outlaw the capture of whales in the wild, and put a stop to the import and export of the species.

If approved, the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement (ORCA) Act would in effect ensure "that this will be the last generation of orcas who live in captivity," Mr. Schiff said in a statement.

A SeaWorld Entertainment spokesperson responded to Schiff's announcement in an interview with the LA Times, saying SeaWorld neither neglects nor abuses its killer whales.

"Through our work with scientists, conservation leaders, and the government SeaWorld is ensuring that all animals in human care are treated with the dignity and respect they require and deserve," said Jill Kermes. 

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. has 24 of the 25 captive orcas in the country (Miami Seaquarium has the other one). Following Schiff's announcement, the company also issued a blog post saying it has consistently supported "science-based regulation" and has been "part of the solution not the problem," adding it has not captured an orca in the wild in 35 years. 

Federal law currently grants permits for the capture and export of orcas for public display. Historically, this is how US marine-themed parks have been able to legally take orcas from the wild. Though an orca has not been caught in US waters since 1976, nor have they been sourced from other parts of the world since 2001, it is still legal to obtain a permit. Captive whales have also recently been bred in captivity - SeaWorld's youngest whale is 10 months old. Under the ORCA Act, such practices would be against the law.

"The evidence is very strong that the psychological and physical harm done to these magnificent animals far outweighs any benefits reaped from their display," Schiff said.

The 2013 documentary "Blackfish" created a public relations nightmare for SeaWorld, one that the company is still fighting to overcome.

Last month, SeaWorld announced a $100 million expansion to its orca enclosure at SeaWorld San Diego. The California Coastal Commission (CCC), the oversight agency for coastal development, approved the project with the caveat that SeaWorld not add any more whales to the 11 orcas it currently has in captivity – either by breeding or wild capture.

SeaWorld has already publicly acknowledged plans to sue the CCC for the right to continue breeding orcas.

The company has also increased its lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C., and in the state of California, according to ThinkProgress. The first three quarters of 2015, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Inc. reported $760,000 on lobbying at the federal level — markedly above its 2014 annual total, according to the site.

A former marine mammal trainer, Samantha Berg, has spoken out in favor of Schiff's proposal. “I saw firsthand how orcas suffer in captivity,” Ms. Berg said. “No amount of toys, larger tanks, better veterinary care or love and attention from their trainers will ever come close to simulating the richness of their lives in the ocean.”

The whales at SeaWorld San Diego range from 10 months to 50 years-old, so, even if the measure is passed, it may be decades before the public sees its last whale in captivity.

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