A federal law to phase out killer whales in captivity is the aim of a Burbank congressman in the latest blow to SeaWorld theme parks in San Diego and elsewhere.

A killer whale calf swims with its mother at SeaWorld San Diego. Courtesy SeaWorld
Rep. Adam Schiff said at a Friday press conference that he would introduce the Orca Responsibility and Care Advancement (ORCA) Act, which would end Shamu shows with this generation.

“Specifically, it would prohibit the breeding, the taking (wild capture) and the import or export of orcas for the purposes of public display,” said his office. “This legislation will also allow for the orderly phasing out of the display of this species, giving orca-holding facilities time to transition to a more humane future.”
 
Schiff, a Democrat, said: “The evidence is very strong that the psychological and physical harm done to these magnificent animals far outweighs any benefits reaped from their display.”

In a statement, the senior corporate affairs officer for Orlando-based SeaWorld Entertainment said: “While efforts to phase out whales in human care may strike an emotional chord, SeaWorld and other science-based organizations are part of the solution, not the problem.”

Jill Kermes, the SeaWorld officer, continued:

Killer whales at SeaWorld are healthy and thriving and through conservation and rescue efforts as well as significant work to advance the scientific understanding of orcas and other marine mammals, SeaWorld is a leader in protecting and preserving these species. 

We have not captured a whale in the wild in 35 years — and we will not do so.  Through our work with scientists, conservation leaders, and the government SeaWorld is ensuring that all animals in human care are treated with the dignity and respect they require and deserve.

SeaWorld has always supported science-based regulation and we look forward to continued collaboration with the government so that together we meet our shared goals of protecting animal welfare and saving the wild.

Kathleen Dezio, executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, called Schiff’s legislation wrong and setting a “very dangerous precedent.”

“If Congress prohibits zoos and aquariums from holding orcas today, which species will be next, and what impact will that have on conservation and education?” she said in a long statement sent to Times of San Diego.

“The public display of animals in zoological settings can engage children, create respect for wildlife and contribute to scientific knowledge,” she said. “Congress should support and not interfere with these important contributions.” 

Schiff’s announcement comes less than a month after the California Coastal Commission told SeaWorld that it could expand its orca tanks in San Diego on condition that no breeding or transfer take place.

Proposed law to phase out killer whales in captivity. (PDF)
SeaWorld said it would sue to remove the breeding ban.

At the press conference, several experts and state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, the sponsor of previous legislation to ban the use of orcas for performance purposes at California aquatic theme parks, spoke in support of Schiff’s bill. 
 
“The growing body of scientific evidence is compelling for orcas,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute. “They are simply too large, too wide-ranging, too socially complex, and too intelligent to thrive in any-sized concrete enclosure. Orcas do not belong in captivity.”

SeaWorld’s quarterly earnings report released Thursday indicates further loss of business.
 
Groups supporting the proposed ORCA Act include the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
  
“PETA applauds Rep. Schiff for introducing a bill that reflects public opinion in favor of ending the archaic and cruel practice of keeping orcas in captivity,” said Jared Goodman, Director of Animal Law for PETA.

Former SeaWorld trainer and San Diego resident John Hargrove, who was in Miami to receive a whistle-blower award, said: “I am ecstatic to see Rep. Schiff use his position to join the effort to end the cruelty of keeping orcas in captivity for entertainment and profit.”

Hargrove, whose critical book “Beneath the Surface” is coming out in paperback, added: “Anyone in his position would have carefully evaluated all the scientific evidence and those with firsthand knowledge to know this practice must end.”

Said Schiff: “Everyone from children to members of Congress now recognizes that in SeaWorld’s tanks, orcas suffer both physically and psychologically, are drugged, die prematurely, and lash out as a result of extreme frustration. The passage of this bill would mark the beginning of the end of that kind of marine prison in the U.S.”

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

On Monday, SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby is expected to announce plans for a new attraction designed to boost attendance — possibly using some of the $100 million the park planned to spend on the expanded orca tanks.

— City News Service contributed to this report.

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