SAN DIEGO — Amid controversy over the killer whale shows at SeaWorld, the City Council on Tuesday unanimously declared March to be SeaWorld San Diego Month.
The proclamation, on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the park on Mission Bay, was sponsored by Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who noted that SeaWorld's "footprint is so very important to us in San Diego."
Councilwoman Lori Zapf picked up the praise and noted that SeaWorld "has helped make some amazing contributions … to national and international marine mammal research."
But the proclamation — the kind of action that the council routinely takes for various groups without any opposition — brought protest from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and others.
"SeaWorld is an embarrassment to this city," said Danielle Katz, PETA's campaign coordinator in its push to have the park discontinue killer whale shows and instead establish "coastal seaside sanctuaries" for the 10 animals, also known as orcas.
Martha Sullivan, wearing a jersey with the large number 10 on the front, read the names of the 10 animals: four of which were captured in the wild, six of which were born in captivity.
"Captivity and captive display is not conservation," Jane Cartmill of San Diego Animal Advocates told the council.
In its praise of SeaWorld, the mayor, Zapf and Councilman Scott Sherman did not address the issue of orcas in captivity, the advocacy film "Blackfish" or the legislation that would ban orcas from being used for entertainment.
Sherman said that "my love of the ocean started with visits with my grandfather to SeaWorld." Zapf mentioned wading into the San Diego River with SeaWorld employees as part of an endangered bird release program.
If nothing else, the polite if pointed confrontation of views showed that SeaWorld is not merely a for-profit theme park. It has had, as John Reilly, president of SeaWorld San Diego, noted to the council, "a 50-year partnership with the city."
The strength of that partnership may become evident when the Legislature considers the bill by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica). The bill would ban orca shows, captive breeding and the import or export of orcas.
SeaWorld has hired a lobbyist to defeat the bill. The council has yet to give directions to its own lobbyist but Faulconer has already said he opposes the bill.
Also, SeaWorld San Diego is in the district of Speaker-elect Toni Atkins, a former City Council member. In a statement about the Bloom bill, Atkins said she respects Bloom but is also aware of what the park does "economically and scientifically for our region."
Located on city property, SeaWorld attracts 4.4 million people a year and pays rent of more than $14 million a year to the city. During the summer, it employs 4,500 workers, putting it, as Faulconer reminded the council, in league of Qualcomm, Northrop-Grumman and the Navy as a major employer.
"The city benefits from our success," Reilly said.
After the council meeting, SeaWorld issued a statement dismissing the critics' views as "meritless.…There is no organization more passionately committed to the physical, mental and social care and well-being of animals than SeaWorld."
Elizabeth Jacobelly, who opposed the proclamation, rejected that argument.
"Yes, SeaWorld has done a lot of good," she said. "But it has also had 50 years of cruelty."