SAN DIEGO — Putting the brakes on a controversial bill to ban killer whale shows at SeaWorld San Diego, an Assembly committee Tuesday called for additional study that could take at least 18 months.
Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, one of the bill's sponsors, said she was disappointed by the move but pleased at the idea of more study — although it remained unclear how the study would be conducted or who would participate.
John Reilly, president of SeaWorld San Diego, said he doubted a compromise is possible with people backing the bill. SeaWorld officials labeled Rose and others as extremists working off emotion and an inaccurate view of SeaWorld presented in the documentary "Blackfish."
Assemblyman Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood), chairman of the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, said the issue of killer whales in captivity is too complex to be decided after a two-hour hearing in Sacramento.
The panel's action, called sending a bill to "interim study," did not require a vote, thus sparing committee members from choosing between SeaWorld and the animal-rights activists.
Speaker-elect Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), in a statement issued by her office, said the "analysis and discussion" during the interim study "will strengthen our understanding of the issues and will lead to a more informed decision."
SeaWorld is in Atkins' district and is a major force in the region's tourism economy.
Although she expressed no opinion on the bill, Atkins has long been a SeaWorld supporter and was a featured speaker last month at its 50th anniversary.
SeaWorld officials told the committee that the bill would cripple the park's program of rescuing injured animals in the wild. Also, SeaWorld officials suggested that SeaWorld would ship its killer whales to marine parks outside California before the bill became effective and probably sue the state.
Written by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), AB 2140 would prohibit orcas from being used for "performance or entertainment purposes" and require SeaWorld to return the orcas to the wild "where possible." If that is deemed impossible, the orcas must be "transferred to a sea pen."
Bloom said that his bill was "a work in progress" and that he welcomed the opportunity for "additional dialogue."
If the debate at the hearing is any indication, the topics to be studied would include whether orcas in captivity live as long as orcas in the wild, whether it is practical to build sea pens, and whether SeaWorld's orcas are suffering, as the AB 2140 backers insist, or thriving, as SeaWorld insists.
The hearing brought testimony from, among others, a researcher from UC Davis who supported the bill and a researcher from UC Santa Cruz who opposed it. The former said better research can be done on orcas in the wild, and the latter said the orca research at SeaWorld cannot be matched.
SeaWorld San Diego has 10 orcas: four caught in the wild, six born in captivity. The Bloom bill would also prohibit the captive breeding of orcas.
The bill was sparked by "Blackfish," which was shown in theaters and on CNN. The film asserts that the orcas are mistreated in captivity by being kept in close confinement and notes the killing of a SeaWorld employee by an orca in Florida in 2010.
On Monday, advocates from the Animal Welfare Institute arrived in Sacramento with a petition they said was signed by 1.2 million people in support of the bill.
Although the park has many other attractions, the orca shows at Shamu Stadium have long been the biggest draw.
SeaWorld San Diego, which drew 4.6 million visitors last year, employs 4,500 workers during the summer, and pays $14 million a year in rent to the city for property on Mission Bay. Forty percent of SeaWorld visitors stay in local hotels, and the average visitor spends $371 a day, compared with $177 for all tourists, according to the San Diego Tourism Authority.