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Puget Sound orca advocates hail SeaWorld’s decision to stop breeding killer whales

Takara, shown swimming with her new calf at SeaWorld in San Diego in May 2002, were conceived through artificial insemination. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. says it will no longer breed killer whales.
Takara, shown swimming with her new calf at SeaWorld in San Diego in May 2002, were conceived through artificial insemination. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. says it will no longer breed killer whales. AP file, 2002

SeaWorld’s decision to shut down its killer whale breeding program and to stop making orcas perform tricks was met with excitement by Puget Sound orca advocates.

“It’s very gratifying. It’s been 20 years we’ve been asking them to do this, to phase out their captive killer-whale circus-entertainment-business model. Finally they are,” said Howard Garrett, of the Orca Network. “It makes me feel like we’re on the right track, even when it looked hopeless.”

SeaWorld said Thursday it would cease breeding killer whales this year, bowing to mounting criticism by animal rights activists, regulators and lawmakers over the treatment of the marine mammals in captivity.

SeaWorld had previously announced it would phase out its San Diego killer whale performance this year, but the statement published Thursday went further in declaring that the orcas in its care would be the last generation of killer whales at its theme parks.

In Garrett’s view, SeaWorld’s actions don’t go far enough. He wants SeaWorld to return its captive orcas to the sea, though he said many would not be able to return to the wild.

“We would like to see them actively investigate how to return their captives on a case-by-case basis to a sea-pen rehabilitation center where they can feel the ocean and regenerate their strength,” he said.

Scientist Ken Balcomb, who has been studying and tracking the number of Puget Sound’s southern resident killer whales since the 1970s at the Center for Whale Research, called SeaWorld’s decision a “symbolic win.”

“I hope this is sort of a signal that there is beginning to be increasing respect worldwide, and in the corporate world, for the role of the ecosystem here,” Balcomb said.

Balcomb and marine parks such as SeaWorld have a long history.

Beginning in the 1960s, 58 killer whales, including at least 45 southern residents, were captured for marine parks, Balcomb said. In 1976, just 71 southern residents were left.

Marine parks didn’t trust Balcomb’s research or the census his organization produced showing the dwindling size of the orca population, he said.

“They (marine aquariums) considered us enemies or at least idiots for being able to tell whales apart. For them, they (the whales) were all Shamu and for the public they were all Shamu, and they ran this breeding program and produced all Shamus,” he said, referring to the name SeaWorld used for many orcas in different parks.

“To me it was like having Walt Disney dictate what we knew about mice, Mickey and Minnie and all those guys. It was all manufactured.”

The end of orca breeding at the parks takes immediate effect. SeaWorld said it would “introduce new, inspiring, natural orca encounters, rather than theatrical shows” at its San Diego park this year, followed by San Antonio and then Orlando in 2019.

The company also announced a partnership with the Humane Society of the United States to improve its educational programs, teach visitors about animal welfare and conservation, and expand advocacy for the protection of marine wildlife.

Balcomb said SeaWorld’s policy change could lead to a better understanding of wild orcas.

“If SeaWorld ever gets over their feeling of us being the enemy, we’d have potential to learn about these whales and their health,” he said.

After caring for the mammals in captivity, Balcomb said, SeaWorld has likely learned about their reproductive biology. He said the company has not always shared that information with researchers.

“It’s trade-secret kind of stuff,” he said. “That information applied to wild whales could give you a lot of insight.”

Just one southern resident orca remains in captivity. For decades, Lolita has been held at Miami’s Seaquarium. Last year, the whale was listed as part of the southern resident population, which meant Lolita was considered endangered.

Garrett is part of a group suing for Lolita’s release. He hopes to bring the whale to a protected cove in the San Juan Islands. Court proceedings could begin in late May or early June, he said.

Meanwhile, the population of southern residents has fluctuated since the 1970s. Southern resident orca numbers hit a 30-year-low in 2014, until the sea mammals caught a recent baby-making buzz.

“The fact they’re still able to reproduce is good news. There were nine babies in 14 months. We’ll find out how many made it in the spring. Usually, there’s 40-50 percent mortality in the first year,” he said. “We’ll cross our fingers.”

Balcomb said the primary ecological danger to the southern resident orcas is a dwindling food supply — endangered chinook salmon are Puget Sound killer whales’ favorite food.

“There’s all these distractions others would like you to waste time on like vessel noise and toxins, not that they aren’t important, but you’ve got to feed them. That’s the basics,” he said.

The New York Times contributed to this report.

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