Updated at 11:30 p.m. Oct. 10, 2015
A state panel Thursday approved SeaWorld’s plan to nearly double the size of its killer whale enclosure but sentenced the San Diego theme park’s famed Shamu show to eventual extinction by prohibiting the breeding of the mammals.
By a 12-0 vote, the California Coastal Commission blessed the Blue World Project. The decision came at an overflow meeting in the Long Beach Convention Center that saw dozens of passionate speeches, including one by animal-rights activist Pamela Anderson.
But Commissioner Dayna Bochco of San Francisco, a San Diego native with major environmental connections, proposed an amendment to prohibit any breeding of orcas, their artificial insemination or their trade or transfer among other parks. Another condition is a cap of 15 whales at the San Diego attraction, which now houses 11.
Bochco’s amendment to Condition 1 passed 11-1, with only Greg Cox — a San Diego County supervisor — dissenting.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, she said, has told the Coastal Commission it doesn’t have jurisdiction over captive marine mammals. She said Section 30230 of the Coastal Act lets the Coastal Commission make such decisions.
“I don’t understand why SeaWorld is clinging so tightly to this misinterpretation of the law. I’m just not going to buy it,” Bochco said, sparking cheers and applause in the ballroom.
“You folks all deserve medals for going through this process,” a SeaWorld critic told commissioners a little before 4 p.m. — almost three hours before their vote, which could worsen problems for a business that’s taken a dive.
Blue World opponents cheered the final vote.
Jared Goodman, the PETA Foundation’s director of animal law, said: “SeaWorld has admitted that it intended to breed even more orcas to fill the new tanks, but the commission’s action today ensures that no more orcas will be condemned to a nonlife of loneliness, deprivation and misery.”
Former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, speaking as head of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, had joined Councilwoman Lorie Zapf and a representative of Mayor Kevin Faulconer in calling for approval.
“SeaWorld is an integral part of the San Diego community because of the research efforts they lead and the jobs that they create,” Sanders said, who noted its role as a “pillar” of tourism. “SeaWorld is one of our region’s finest corporate citizens and one of the world’s most distinguished zoological organizations.”
In a minute-long statement, he said Blue World would be a “tremendous new attraction and enhance SeaWorld’s efforts around education, conservation and research.”
Commission staff had recommended approval of the $100 million San Diego project, which opponents said continued the torture-for-profit of killer whales and backers said would improve research and the lives of orcas.
Pam Slater-Price, who left the county Board of Supervisors in 2013 after 20 years, noted revelations at the hearing of “numerous outstanding violations, which should be remediated” before any new permits, “which have been ongoing for 10 years.”
“Your vote will reveal your character,” she told the panel. “If you vote against the project, you are showing that you’re ethical and show compassion. If … you choose to support the project, you will reveal that you’ve put money and power above ethics and enlightened behavior.”
Slater-Price concluded: “If you choose not to act responsibly, this is not over. We will not give up, and we will continue to educate the public about SeaWorld’s continuing abuses.”
At 6:20 p.m., Commissioner Cox said “the best action we can make today is to move forward with this project.” But he asked SeaWorld’s local leader if he would accept a limit on the number of orcas held in San Diego.
“Would you be willing to accept a cap of 15?” Cox said.
“Yes,” said SeaWorld San Diego President John Reilly.
But when asked his stance on a breeding prohibition, Reilly said it would lead to a “slow extinction” of orcas in SeaWorld’s care “and a slow death.”
Children testified during afternoon public comments, including one Blue World opponent who said: “Excuse me for my poor speech. I just got my braces.”
One SeaWorld supporter from Coronado responded to earlier speakers. “The lie about us being paid to be here is a lie,” she said.
Lola King of El Segundo said Blue World already exists. “It’s the ocean,” she said, calling the tank project “a glamorized prison cell.”
A man provoked laughter by saying it’s a terrible time to be building swimming pools. Animal-rights organizer Ellen Ericksen mocked earlier barbs by intoducing herself as a “proud, extreme-fringe radical activist from San Diego.”
Public comment was cut off at 6 p.m. even though Commission Chair Steve Kinsey noted that dozens of pink speaker slips remained in front of him.
“A wide range of opinions but very respectful,” Kinsey said.
The Mission Bay park will build two orca pools, one with 5.2 million gallons of water and the other with 450,000 gallons, to replace the current 1.7 million-gallon tank. The project also will include replacing bathroom facilities for visitors.
One contractor said Blue World would take 2 1/2 years to complete.
Animal rights groups that have been trying for years to get the orcas released into the wild argue that the whales might have larger tanks under the SeaWorld plan but would still be captive.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals passed out signs and large banners. SeaWorld supporters wore blue shirts and carried signs saying “Educate. Inspire. Conserve” and “Blue World YES!”
“SeaWorld’s tanks, regardless of size, deny these highly intelligent animals the social bonds, open space, freedom, and stimulation that they would have in their natural ocean homes,” PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman said before the hearing.
Dr. Paul Ponganis, a research physiologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said last week that the project would result in new opportunities for researchers to conduct studies that will benefit killer whales and other cetaceans in the wild.
The commission staff recommended approval after SeaWorld officials pledged that the facility would not house any orcas taken from the wild after Feb. 12, 2014, nor would it use killer whale genetic material taken from the wild after the same date. That date later was changed to January 2012 to avert the possible import of Russian-caught orcas.
However, SeaWorld is allowed to take in rescued orcas authorized by government agencies.
Before a long lunch break, scientists from as far away as New Zealand presented photos, videos and colorful stories against the project. But experts and industry executives backing SeaWorld spoke forcefully as well.
SeaWorld’s project was supported by the national and state associations of zoos and aquariums, some veterinarians and researchers, and a bipartisan group of local elected officials.
In a statement after the hearing, the Animal Legal Defense Fund said the Coastal Commission “voted to do the right thing.”
“The special permit conditions, proposed by ALDF and a coalition of animal and environmental protection organizations, are necessary to ensure that the existing orcas already held captive in the SeaWorld San Diego tanks get the full benefit of marginally larger tanks,” said the statement.
“More important, the commission’s decision means that if SeaWorld decides to move forward with the Blue World expansion project, it will essentially be required to phase out the use of orcas for entertainment acts in San Diego. ALDF applauds the Commission’s decision as the best outcome for the animals under the circumstances.”
ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells said: “SeaWorld’s business is circling the drain as an enlightened public is objecting to the confinement of orcas in bleak bathtubs for the sake of entertainment.”
In a statement after the vote, SeaWorld said it was disappointed with the new conditions “and will carefully review and consider our options.”
“Breeding is a natural, fundamental and important part of an animal’s life,” the tourist attraction said, “and depriving a social animal of the right to reproduce is inhumane.”
— City News Service contributed to this report.