Coastal Commission staff recommends approval of SeaWorld orca tank project

In a victory for SeaWorld, the staff of the California Coastal Commission has recommended the approval of a permit to build an expanded holding facility for the theme park's killer whales, despite opposition from animal rights groups.

The Coastal Commission, a state panel with authority to approve or deny construction projects along the state's coastal areas, is set Oct. 8 to vote on a plan to expand and replace SeaWorld's existing holding facility with a new 450,000-gallon pool and a 5.2 million-gallon tank.

Animal rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have pressed the commission to reject the expansion plan, saying the San Diego park's 11 killer whales should be released to seaside sanctuaries, not held in captivity.

The commission staff said the project has generated the biggest outpouring of public comments in the panel's history. The staff has received more than 120,000 emails, overwhelmingly in opposition to the permit request.

The agency also has received about 32,000 letters and postcards, most of them in support of the project. SeaWorld put up booths at its San Diego park where guests were encouraged to sign postcards in support of the project.

The expansion, dubbed "Blue World," was proposed in the face of harsh criticism generated by the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," which accused SeaWorld of neglecting and abusing its killer whales. SeaWorld has denied the charges but park attendance has dropped while SeaWorld Entertainment shares have plunged.

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During negotiations between SeaWorld and the Coastal Commission staff, SeaWorld has agreed to the condition that it will not house any killer whale, or use any "genetic material" from a killer whale, taken from the wild after Feb. 12, 2014.

Other conditions proposed by the Coastal Commission staff call for SeaWorld to reduce the effects of noise, traffic and runoff caused by the project.

“The proposed Blue World project will provide not only an expanded habitat for whales, but also new opportunities for researchers to conduct studies that will benefit killer whales and other cetaceans in the wild,” said Paul Ponganis, a research physiologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in a statement released by SeaWorld. “In addition, a dynamic animal environment like Blue World may inspire a host of future marine biologists, veterinarians, and other scientists.”

Animal rights groups still oppose the project, saying the staff condition includes loopholes that would allow SeaWorld to take whales already held captive by other parks.

"It's an outrageous staff report," said Sara Wan, a consultant for the Animal Legal Defense Fund and former Coastal Commission member.

Coastal Commission staff said they expect so many opponents and supporters at the meeting that the venue was moved from the Long Beach City Hall to the 400,000-square-foot Long Beach Convention Center. 

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