SeaWorld’s announcement today that it will cease all of its orca breeding programs puts the park in a better position to keep making money off of its captive orcas while publicly promoting marine mammal conservation.

Conservationists had been strengthening their call for sea pens to house large marine mammals, like orcas and dolphins. The envisioned sea pens would be large reserved spaces in the ocean, probably near land in a bay or cove, enclosed by barriors such as nets. The cost and negotiations — government and otherwise — required for the establishment of such sea sanctuaries would be significant, however.

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Rob Laidlaw, executive director of Canada-based Zoocheck Inc., previously told Discovery News that “if marine parks and aquaria are forced to, or voluntarily, give up their animals, where can those animals go? One option for some individuals may be release back into the wild, something that has been done successfully a number of times, but that option has to be evaluated on a case by case basis.”

He continued, “For those animals who are not candidates for release, the most feasible option that stands the best chance of providing them with enhanced welfare and quality of life, through the provision of more space than any traditional captive setting, as well as environmental complexity and flexibility and a heightened level of individual autonomy, are sea pen sanctuaries. However, at present, no permanent sea pen sanctuaries for whales and dolphins exist.”

Just prior to today’s SeaWorld announcement, the marine park had issued a press release on the declining health of Tilikum, a male orca featured in the popular documentary “Blackfish,” which underscored problems within the sea park industry.

The recent release about Tilikum read, in part, “We are saddened to report that over the past few weeks, Tilikum’s behavior has become increasingly lethargic. The SeaWorld veterinary and animal care teams are concerned that his health is beginning to deteriorate.”

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The news about Tilikum prompted renewed criticism of SeaWorld. A report in One Green Planet just two days ago, for example, included the following: “Now more than ever, we must rally together and boycott these cruel facilities and #EmptyTheTanks once and for all. Only when we stop paying to see animals in captivity can the suffering end.”

By partnering with the Humane Society, however, SeaWorld reduces the risk that it will have to surrender its 29 orcas, aka killer whales. The facility houses the largest killer whale population in a zoological facility worldwide.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) confirmed today that, in addition to ending its orca breeding programs, SeaWorld would maximize “its focus on rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals in distress,” participate in advocacy campaigns to end the commercial slaughter of marine mammals, revamp its food policies in its restaurants, protect coral reefs, and reduce the commercial collection of wild-caught ornamental fish.

HSUS had been negotiating for months with SeaWorld to develop and initiate the changes.

“This is a first, massive step forward toward a more humane future for SeaWorld,” said Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) and formerly with the HSUS. “I welcome these commitments from (SeaWorld CEO) Joel Manby. He has given SeaWorld a new lease on life.”

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Even “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite praised today’s announcement.

She said, “This is a defining moment. The fact that SeaWorld is doing away with orca breeding marks truly meaningful change.”

AWI also issued a statement today that read, in part:

The decision to end its orca breeding program globally and to commit to ending the collection of exhibit animals from the wild, as well as to a ‘no orca’ policy should SeaWorld expand its brand into new international markets, is a monumental and important first step forward in achieving a more humane business model for the company.

AWI, however, indicated that it would continue to monitor practices at SeaWorld: “We look forward to engaging in future discussions with Manby and his team to ensure that the company continues to improve its practices and policies surrounding captive cetaceans.”

David Phillips, executive director of Earth Island Institute, perhaps best summed up public concern over the continued captivity of large marine mammals, and past dramatic shows featuring these animals.

Phillips told Discovery News, “In the future, we’ll look back and shake our heads that far-ranging and socially dependent orca whales were ever allowed to be kept in small concrete tanks doing circus tricks.”