Editorial:  What to do about SeaWorld’s captive killers

A still from the the documentary "Blackfish."
A still from the the documentary “Blackfish.”
(Sarah Hoffman / Sundance)

The lives of captive killer whales are nothing like those of their wild counterparts. Instead of roaming for miles every day in close-knit family groups, captive whales perform for audiences in tanks that, though roomier than those of early marine parks, are far too small for such large ocean predators. In the wild, killer whales have not been known to kill humans or one another. The same cannot be said for the whales in amusement parks around the world, even though they represent only about a tenth of a percent of the numbers in the wild.

It is time to seriously consider phasing out killer whale shows, an idea that has gained greater popularity thanks to the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.”

But a California bill to ban the shows outright goes too far too fast. AB 2140, by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), would end all killer whale shows in the state — which in effect means at SeaWorld San Diego, which has 10 whales and is the only place in California where such shows are still staged.

It would also require the creation of sea pens, if feasible — enclosed areas near shore where, it’s thought, most of the existing captive whales could live as natural a life as possible. Those that could be rehabilitated and could make the transition successfully would have to be returned to the wild. Few would fall into that category; it’s an enormously expensive and risky proposition. The bill also would ban captive breeding and the importation of killer whales into California.


The Assembly Water Parks and Wildlife Committee, which is scheduled to consider the bill Tuesday, should ask for substantial revisions.

Legislators should keep in mind that requiring SeaWorld to suddenly shutter its signature attraction could destroy the rest of the marine park’s business. Though animal rights activists might think that’s fine, SeaWorld has invested heavily in its killer whale program and done so legally. In the absence of documented animal abuse, the company shouldn’t be stripped of its most valuable assets overnight.

Bloom was obviously affected by “Blackfish” and deserves credit for taking on this subject, but making entirely new policy on killer whale shows calls for a more methodical approach. His bill should require the state to gather solid, objective science on the effects of captivity on killer whales. The next step might well be the prohibition of captive breeding as well as a ban on bringing new killer whales into the state. SeaWorld would have years to devise a new headline draw while continuing to show its existing whales, but the public would know that, at least in California, an outmoded way of viewing the magnificent marine mammals is coming to a close.