Op-Ed: SeaWorld Falls Short At CCC Hearing
After much ado at the California Coastal Commission (CCC) on October 8, SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment Inc. found themselves between a rock and a hard place when the CCC ruled that yes, SeaWorld would gain approval for its Blue World project expansion, provided they stop breeding their orcas at the San Diego facility.
For hours, at the Long Beach Convention Center, SeaWorld argued that their new tank expansion would serve to benefit the resident orcas held at its park in San Diego. And fellow supporters of the project expressed their outrage that people who claimed to love these whales were opposing the project so vehemently.
For many, the writing on the wall could be seen from Shamu stadium. The CCC would approve the project and a tank with the space to potentially hold 90+ orcas, would be built. But it didn’t quite work out that way, even though SeaWorld attempted to assert its beliefs long before the Oct. 8, meeting.
According to the ‘LA Times‘, SeaWorld’s legal team had been lobbying the commission since last April, and while the corporation was granted permission to build, some members of the CCC were analyzing state law:
Despite letters on April 13, Aug. 21, and Oct. 1, SeaWorld’s main attorney, David Watson, from the Duane Morris law firm, was not able to convince commission staffers that “federal law pre-empts all state laws involving any aspect of public display, exhibition, conservation and management of marine mammals.”
Thus, on the day of the hearing, Commissioner Dayna Bochco offered the following assessment:
Bochco then proposed Condition 1 to the amendment — SeaWorld had to cease breeding its orcas. Furthermore, none of the animals at the San Diego attraction could be traded or transferred to other parks. The condition also imposed a cap of 15 whales — to include the 11 already housed at the California park, with space for rescues.
Condition 1 to the amendment passed easily with an 11-1 vote, and the Blue World project passed unanimously, 12-0.
Kim Ventre, the sister of ‘Blackfish’ cast member Dr. Jeffrey Ventre, attended the hearing and spoke against approving the expansion. She told Dolphin Project:
One of the commissioners said that without this amendment, they were going to have to vote no and they didn’t want to do that because they agreed that expanded tanks were good for the whales. So my belief was they thought they were giving SeaWorld a great compromise … with only Cox fully supporting that SeaWorld wanted breeding vs. just expanded tanks.
The one dissenting vote against the amendment came from Commissioner Greg Cox — also on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Not wholly surprising given that SeaWorld earns the city of San Diego a lot of cash per year. This article by Lisa Halverstadt, from ‘Voice of San Diego‘ spelled it out:
SeaWorld rents about 172 acres of land and roughly 18 acres of water in the city-owned Mission Bay Park, and the amount of cash the city receives from the arrangement is tied to the theme park’s financial success.
Furthermore, she added:
Last year , the city collected almost $14 million and the year before, about $12.7 million. And for the past three years, rent payments from SeaWorld have made up at least 45 percent of annual cash from city leases on Mission Bay.
The City of San Diego’s received payments are actually incumbent on SeaWorld generating an income. Which could explain why there are already suggestions that SeaWorld should sue the CCC over their decision. From the aforementioned, ‘LA Times’:
San Diego Councilwoman Lori Zapf, who said she hopes SeaWorld goes to court. “What’s at stake here is the future of SeaWorld,” she said. “San Diego without SeaWorld is unimaginable.”
And an editorial at the ‘San Diego Union-Tribune’, reads:
The commission decision was based on emotion and shallow animal-rights politics. It fails to recognize that breeding is a fundamental part of orca life. Of the 32 killer whale calves born at all SeaWorld parks, only four were the result of artificial insemination. But SeaWorld has options, the most obvious being a court challenge. We urge it to aggressively pursue that option.
Shallow animal-rights politics or facts versus rhetoric? Marine parks are good at the latter, not so much at the former. Folks are simply asked to “Believe.”
Well let’s look at some facts.
The report issued by the CCC published just prior to the hearing, said:
The question of whether the orcas currently in SeaWorld San Diego are subject to Section 30230 is an interpretive question. The Commission has interpreted Section 30230 to apply to wild California orcas within the broader meaning and purpose of the Coastal Act (e.g. CD-008-13, pp. 18-19 [requiring separate consistency with the first sentence of § 30230 to maintain, enhance and restore marine resources; CD-16-00, pp. 8 – 16 [finding consistency with § 30230 for seismic testing impacts on marine mammals, including orcas].) However, excepting analysis from construction noise impacts for SeaWorld’s splash down ride (CDP 6-01-129), the Commission has not applied section 30230 to captive marine animals, even while considering other tank installations or potential installations at Scripps Institute of Oceanography and UC Santa Cruz.
Section 30230 of the Coastal Act — as cited by Commisioner Bochco, states:
Uses of the marine environment shall be carried out in a manner that will sustain the biological productivity of coastal waters and that will maintain healthy populations of all species of marine organisms adequate for long-term commercial, recreational, scientific, and educational purposes.
This has been addressed before in 2002, according to Hugo Martin of the ‘LA Times‘, when the Coastal Commission imposed conditions on a SeaWorld project in order to protect captive animals:
The state panel, deciding on a roller coaster project at SeaWorld, required that the park shield its whales and dolphins from the noise generated by the attraction. Other conditions proposed by the commission staff call for SeaWorld to reduce the effects of noise, traffic and runoff caused by the project.
And indeed, the CCC’s report, which can be viewed here (p.13), clearly expresses concern over the harm said roller coaster might cause to the park’s marine mammals.
Former California Coastal Commission chair Sarah Wan now with the Animal League Defense Fund said that absolutely Section 30230 can be applied in this case, because it already has:
But what is truly astonishing is how SeaWorld fails to see how Blue World isn’t any guarantee that the park will bump up its flagging business. Dan McSwain a Business Columnist at the ‘San Diego Union-Tribune‘ nailed it perfectly:
Public opinion — and thus potential customers — are moving inexorably toward greater rights for animals and away from watching captives jump through hoops. The sooner SeaWorld accepts this market reality, the sooner one of San Diego’s great tourist attractions will stop sinking.
You can sue the CCC, SeaWorld, or you can build Blue World and create further PR nightmares along the way. But what you cannot do, is ever force the public inside.
All Videos courtesy of Haze Sommer.
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Elizabeth is a freelance writer, a former large animal nurse and a former certified NREMT. She is passionate about the ocean and its inhabitants and her work focuses on cetacean-related issues, including captive whales and dolphins. She graduated in psychology and sociology and lives with her family in beautiful northwestern Montana.