State legislation that would ban killer whale performances was shelved by an Assembly committee Tuesday amid sharply conflicting arguments.
SeaWorld executives claimed the so-called “Blackfish” bill would devastate the marine park – and possibly even expose the state to multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
Supporters of the bill charged that they simply wanted SeaWorld to move toward a successful future without its trademark killer whales.
The vastly differing realities ultimately led the state Assembly’s Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife to decide to place the measure in a holding pattern.
“It’s abundantly clear that 30 minutes of debate are not enough to determine the full impact of this bill,” said Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, a Lakewood-based legislator who chairs the committee.
Rendon, who acknowledged he’d likely support the bill, called on SeaWorld fans and foes to participate in a roughly year-long review of the measure.
Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica, who sponsored the bill, told U-T San Diego that he plans to press forward but SeaWorld came away with at least a temporary victory on Tuesday.
And while Rendon said the potential effects of the bill couldn’t be established at Tuesday’s hearing, SeaWorld detailed some stark possibilities.
Here’s some of what the marine park claimed on Tuesday.
California would have the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for orcas on its hands.
SeaWorld lobbyist Scott Wetch suggested the bill would rob visitors of the ability to enjoy the park’s orca performances but still allow SeaWorld to engage the animals in performance-like activities behind the scenes.
Wetch compared that to the now-repealed act that barred gays in the military from revealing their sexual orientation.
“The proposed amendments would continue to ban performances but would allow activities such as exercise, husbandry, stimulation activity and training, which is exactly what is incorporated in the performances as long as there’s no music or nobody watching,” Wetch said. “It’s the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for whales. As long as the public’s not watching all the activities are OK but don’t allow the public to watch.”
Supporters of AB 2140 argue the performances require killer whales to display behaviors they don’t typically exhibit in the wild.
SeaWorld’s constitutional rights would be violated.
The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution bars the taking of life, liberty or property without due process and SeaWorld claimed robbing it of its star animal would constitute a violation of that clause.
SeaWorld said depriving the park of its star animal would represent a violation of its Fifth Amendment rights, which prevent the taking of life, liberty or property without due process.
“The ban and restrictions in the bill constitute a classic taking under the Fifth Amendment as it deprives SeaWorld of the economic value of these whales,” Wetch said. He suggested the state would be exposed to millions in legal fees as a result.
There were other potential legal liabilities, Wetch said. Halting the killer whale shows could also be a First Amendment violation,Wetch said, though he didn’t elaborate on why other than to say the parks, not the orcas, would be the victims. And barring the transport of orca fluids for captive breeding programs could violate the Commerce Clause, Wetch said.
A few animal law experts recently told ThinkProgress that SeaWorld’s arguments didn’t hold much water.
Here’s what Rutgers professor Gary L. Francione told the left-leaning blog: “I am not sure on what basis anyone claims that this violates the federal Constitution. I suppose that they might argue that it is a taking of property that requires compensation but I think that is weak.”
Killer whale studies would be disrupted.
SeaWorld has long battled “Blackfish” backlash by arguing there are benefits to holding killer whales and other marine animals in captivity.
SeaWorld says its orcas enjoy performing in shows, and that the humans who study them have been able to draw valuable conclusions about the creatures based on regular access to them that isn’t possible in the wild.
“In my expert opinion, the proposed bill will cripple our ability to conduct vital research with SeaWorld’s most iconic species, what scientists call the killer whale – orcinus orca,” said Pamela Yochem, senior research scientist at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute.
Yochem said the nonprofit has long monitored and learned from the orcas at SeaWorld and drawn conclusions that have helped killer whales in the wild.
UC Santa Cruz biologist Shawn Noren made a similar case on SeaWorld’s behalf. Noren said SeaWorld’s killer whales have helped scientists learn about the creatures’ metabolic patterns and calorie requirements.
SeaWorld would simply move its orcas to other states.
Wetch, the SeaWorld lobbyist, cautioned that the bill ultimately wouldn’t achieve the results proponents are looking for – after all, the company can just move its whales elsewhere.
“The reality is that my client, most likely as soon as this bill would become law, would have no choice but in order to protect the health and welfare of the whales as well as their own economic interest would be forced to move these whales immediately to Texas, to Florida and to other parks throughout the world,” Wetch said. “So Mr. Bloom’s well-intended bill would have no consequence for these whales but would just deprive nearly 5 million Californians of the ability to go to SeaWorld and to engage with these animals and to learn from these animals and to enjoy these animals, and that would be what most likely would end up occurring.”
This is part of our Quest: SeaWorld series digging into the park’s impact on our region. Check out the previous story – What a Shamu-Less SeaWorld Might Look Like – and the next in our series – Lessons from History on the SeaWorld Debate.