SeaWorld took yet another blow yesterday, when the California Coastal Commission approved the company’s plan to expand its orca pools only on the condition that it breed no more orcas at the facility, transfer no orcas out, and import no new orcas to the facility. SeaWorld’s stock sank more than five percent from yesterday’s closing price after the news went public.
SeaWorld has been reeling since the broadcast of Blackfish – a hard-hitting expose of the exploitation of orcas in captivity – that first aired in 2013 and was then rebroadcast time and again by CNN. Despite spending millions of dollars to turn back the campaign from animal advocates and CNN, SeaWorld has been unable to stop its share price from falling by more than half, and the pressure is now mounting for the marine park to announce that it will give up its orca acts and move these marine mammals to sea pens to live out the remainder of their lives.
When the momentum for social reform builds, as it has with the SeaWorld campaign, change comes through multiple channels. Yesterday, it came through the appointed members of the California Coastal Commission, who are charged with protecting the state’s coastal resources and approving new construction projects, such as the physical expansion of the park’s water features.
SeaWorld, in this case, knew that the commission could act adversely, and it bused in hundreds of employees for the hearing. Yet the Coastal Commission acted unanimously, not only to approve bigger pools for the orcas, but essentially to sunset the orca performances, by stipulating that SeaWorld could neither breed orcas nor bring in new animal performers. The HSUS testified at the hearing in favor of this outcome.
With Ringling Bros. pledging to end its use of elephants in travelling acts, there is a new concentration on the animal performances at SeaWorld. People are realizing that SeaWorld’s orca performances are just for profit and not about conservation. Former trainers, marine mammal scientists, and others are calling for reform, and the public is responding by spending their entertainment dollars elsewhere. The principled actions of the Coastal Commission are a sign that SeaWorld, despite its massive spending campaign, is losing the argument, and the pressure should be sufficient to force a permanent change in the company’s business model.
Reinvent itself as a humane enterprise, or wither. Those are the only two options for SeaWorld.