After receiving about 75,000 letters and emails on the treatment of orcas in captivity, the California Coastal Commission has delayed for two months a vote on whether to allow SeaWorld San Diego to build larger tanks for the park's killer whales.
SeaWorld, facing harsh criticism over the treatment of its orcas, announced a plan last year to nearly double the size of its killer whale environment with a new facility that covers 1.5 acres, is 50 feet deep and 350 feet in length.
But critics of the marine-themed park oppose the project, describing it as a marketing ploy to fool the public into believing the orcas are living in a healthy environment.
"This is basically window dressing for an orca prison at SeaWorld," said Jared Goodman, a lawyer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "These conditions would do virtually nothing to improve the lives of the animals confined there."
SeaWorld pointed to marine experts who say the larger habitat, known as Blue World, would benefit the killer whales.
"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 Dr. Paul J. Ponganis, research physiologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. has been under attack by animal rights groups since the release in 2013 of the documentary "Blackfish," which accuses the SeaWorld parks of neglecting and abusing its orcas. Attendance at SeaWorld parks has dipped, and the Orlando, Fla., company's shares have lost nearly half their value since 2013.
In addition to building the larger tanks, SeaWorld has launched an advertising campaign to dispute charges from its critics, and it has promised to contribute $10 million to research on the species. The company also released a study last week by three SeaWorld researchers and the head of biological programs at the Minnesota Zoo that says orcas in SeaWorld parks live as long as killer whales in the wild. The report was published in the Journal of Mammalogy.
The Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction over construction along the state's shoreline, was scheduled to vote on SeaWorld's expansion plan in August but has instead delayed the vote until its meeting in Long Beach in October.
"The item was pushed to October to give staff more time to ensure that all viewpoints and relevant information are addressed in any final recommendation," a commission spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman confirmed that the agency had received about 75,000 letters and emails, most in opposition to the project.
The opposition seems to be led by PETA, which recently launched a campaign urging people to oppose the SeaWorld project.
PETA included on its website a letter to the commission that opponents can sign and send by simply clicking a button.
"I care about orcas, and I'm sure you do, too," the letter reads. "Please deny SeaWorld the opportunity to build a bigger prison. Help get the orcas one step closer to a world where they can really thrive — not in tanks, but in seaside sanctuaries."
In a 12-page letter to the commission, Goodman said the agency is obligated to make decisions that not only protect the coastline but also the animals that live in coastal waters.
PETA and other animal rights groups say SeaWorld's orcas should be released to ocean sanctuaries, such as a cove sealed off from the open ocean by a net.
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