A baby Orca with its mother at SeaWorld. Photo by Mike Aguilera via SeaWorld San Diego
A baby Orca with its mother at SeaWorld. Photo by Mike Aguilera via SeaWorld San Diego

SeaWorld Entertainment announced Thursday that orcas will no longer be bred in San Diego or at other parks, and theatrical shows involving the marine mammals will be phased out.

SeaWorld has also teamed up with the Humane Society of the United States in an effort to educate visitors about animal welfare and conservation issues through programs at the parks and expanded advocacy for whales, seals and other marine creatures in the wild.

“SeaWorld has introduced more than 400 million guests to orcas, and we are proud of our part in contributing to the human understanding of these animals,” SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. President and CEO Joel Manby said.

“As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it. By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and re-imagining how guests will encounter these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter.”

SeaWorld’s about-face comes less than three months after park officials filed a lawsuit against the California Coastal Commission over a ruling that would end the breeding of captive killer whales at its local theme park. The commission’s October order was tacked onto its approval of a permit for the expansion of its orca tanks.

SeaWorld had agreed earlier to not increase the park’s orca population, except through occasional captive births or rescues authorized by government agencies. Park officials said they have not captured orcas in the wild for decades.

SeaWorld has suffered dipping attendance since the release of the documentary film “Blackfish,” which focused on the treatment of orcas at the park.

The theme park on Mission Bay has been the frequent target of animal rights organizations and was criticized after a San Diego employee posed as an animal rights activist to spy on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

“PETA has campaigned hard and today there is a payoff for future generations of orcas,” said PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk. “SeaWorld has taken a step forward but more must come.”

Manby wrote in an Los Angeles Times op-ed published Thursday that the attitudes of Americans about orcas has changed dramatically since the first SeaWorld park opened in 1964, with orcas going from being feared and hunted to become “among the most popular marine mammals on the planet.”

“We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world’s largest marine mammals,” he wrote. “Now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create, which is why SeaWorld is announcing several historic changes. This year we will end all orca breeding programs and because SeaWorld hasn’t collected an orca from the wild in almost four decades, this will be the last generation of orcas in SeaWorld’s care.”

SeaWorld also plans to replace its theatrical shows with “natural orca encounters,” starting in San Diego next year, then in San Antonio and Orlando in 2019. The orcas will continue to receive the highest-quality care.

SeaWorld will also partner with the Humane Society of the United States to advocate against commercial whaling, seal hunts, shark finning and ocean pollution, and it says it will increase its focus on rescue operations.

“Today we turn a corner, working together to achieve solutions on a wide set of animal issues including sunsetting the use of orcas at existing facilities; maximizing SeaWorld’s focus on rescue, rehabilitation and advocacy for marine mammals in the wild; and sourcing food for animals and customers from humane and sustainable sources, including cage-free eggs and crate-free pork,” Humane Society President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said.

City News Service contributed to this article.

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.