SeaWorld today announced that it would be phasing out its killer whale shows in San Diego, with a new "orca experience" taking their place in 2017.
The announcement followed a press conference held last Friday by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) where Shiff said he would introduce the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement Act (ORCA), aimed at ending the captivity of all orcas nationwide.
Killer whales, otherwise known as orcas, are actually the largest members of the dolphin family.
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"In 2017 we will launch an all new orca experience focused on natural environment (of whales)," said SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment President Joel Manby. "2016 will be the last year of our theatrical killer whale experience in San Diego. We are listening to our guests, evolving as a company."
SeaWorld and other parks would eventually be forced to do so anyway if ORCA is passed. Specifically, the landmark legislation would prohibit the import or export of orcas for public display.
While a wild capture of an orca has not occurred in U.S. waters since 1976, and wild-caught orcas from other parts of the world have not been imported since 2001, permits can still be issued legally. All other captive orcas have been bred in captivity. These practices would be prohibited under the ORCA Act.
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At Schiff's press conference, a number of marine mammal experts spoke in support of the new act.
"I saw firsthand how orcas suffer in captivity," said former Seaworld marine mammal trainer Samantha Berg. "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. We cannot meet their needs in captivity."
Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, echoed Berg's concerns: "The growing body of scientific evidence is compelling for orcas. They are simply too large, too wide-ranging, too socially complex and too intelligent to thrive in any-sized concrete enclosure. Orcas do not belong in captivity."
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Public pressure to end the captivity of orcas has been a key factor as well. After the July 2013 documentary "Blackfish" was released, SeaWorld's finances nosedived. The Guardian reported that the company's stock investment shares halved following the film, which chronicled the drowning death of an orca trainer.
It will be interesting to see how other aquariums react to both Schiff and SeaWorld's announcements. According to the organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation, there are currently a total of 58 orcas held in over a dozen marine parks located in eight different countries.