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Both Sides Say Ruling on Whales Was Victory

Times Staff Writer

Sea World and conservation groups both claimed at least partial victory Friday in a legal dispute over the amusement park’s long-delayed plans to capture killer whales off the Alaska coast.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this week upheld a lower court’s ruling that the National Marine Fisheries Service was unreasonable when it failed to require an environmental impact report before granting Sea World a permit for the whale capture in 1983.

That aspect of the appellate decision pleased the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and other environmental groups that hope to block human interference with whale life in Alaska’s waters.

But the three-judge court panel overturned an Alaska judge’s order requiring the fisheries service to proceed with an environmental impact review. Instead, the appellate judges said the federal agency was free, if it chose, to simply issue a more thorough justification of its reasons for granting Sea World’s permit without further study.

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From Sea World’s perspective, that portion of the court decision breathed new life into dormant plans for capturing 100 whales off the Alaska coast over five years--90 for brief study and release, 10 for exhibition at Sea World’s parks in San Diego, Florida and Ohio.

Just what will happen next is up to fisheries service officials in Washington, who had not received a copy of the appellate decision Friday and declined to make any statement on the issue until next week.

Environmental groups, which joined with Alaskan state officials in vigorously protesting the capture plans, say they will to maintain pressure on federal agencies to require more study of the impact of Sea World’s proposal on sensitive whale populations and breeding areas.

“We’re cautious,” said Alan Reichman, Northwest wildlife coordinator for Greenpeace. “We feel the orcas (killer whales) have a reprieve from capture of at least another summer, and we consider that to be a victory.” He predicted that the groundswell of criticism in Alaska eventually would block Sea World’s plans altogether.

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However, Sea World officials view the decision as putting the permit process in motion for the first time in the two years since environmentalists challenged the planned whale capture in court.

“We’re now in the posture where we can continue to do the things we need to do in order to have the permit reissued,” said Philip Williams, Sea World administrative vice president. “Our in-house opinion is that this is a decision that’s favorable.”

Sea World contends the whale capture program is research-oriented, part of its ongoing effort to learn more about aquatic animals and ways to breed whales in captivity and the wild.

Conservation groups object that scientists do not know enough yet about whale breeding habits to guarantee that removing the giant animals from their family groups and breeding grounds, even briefly, will not lead to depletion of the whale population off the Alaska coast.

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