In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby announced today that SeaWorld is ending captive breeding of orcas in its parks. But he intends for this last generation of orcas to live out their lives in concrete tanks at SeaWorld, and apparently intends no changes for all the other dolphins and whales and other animals that the company holds captive for profit.

Photo via Kimmela

Photo via Kimmela

SeaWorld’s announcement has been met with mixed feelings by the marine mammal advocacy community. David Phillips, Executive Director of the Earth Island Institute, expressed concern about the support that SeaWorld is receiving from the Humane Society of the U.S.:

Because of the stamp of approval from HSUS to SeaWorld keeping all orcas in captivity, it may significantly hurt the growing effort to bring about orca retirement to independent seaside sanctuaries.

So, while I do think it is important to support this step forward, it doesn’t mean that our work is done. We must keep up the pressure to end the capture, trade, breeding, circus performances, and holding of cetaceans captivity and for retirement of all captives.

On CNN.com, marine biologist and author Carl Safina weighed in on the critical issue of how and when the orcas would be retired altogether:

I and some others would like to see orcas retired to net pens in natural waters. This would be analogous to retirement sanctuaries for elephants and chimpanzees … Let us now devise a realistic, humane, properly funded long-term plan for retirement sanctuaries for orcas.

And author Tim Zimmerman echoed this concern in an article in Outside Magazine:

Even with an immediate end to captive breeding, killer whales are long-lived, and SeaWorld could have some of its younger killer whales in its pools for 30 or more years … This leaves SeaWorld with two costly choices: weathering ongoing criticism for keeping killer whales in its existing pools or investing in developing sea-based sanctuaries.

Responses like these point to the one inescapable conclusion that SeaWorld’s CEO is still avoiding: that while stopping the breeding of captive orcas is an important step forward, the only way the company will be free of continued criticism from animal protection advocates, scientists, and the public is to retire the orcas and all the other cetaceans to sea sanctuaries.

On interviews throughout the day, Joel Manby responded to the sanctuary question with the classic crisis-PR maneuver of ignoring the question and going off on a tangent – in this case by saying that captive orcas cannot be released into the wild, thus creating the impression that retiring the orcas to a coastal sanctuary is the same as releasing them into the ocean. Nothing could be further from the truth. Coastal sanctuaries are the only ethical and practical solution to SeaWorld’s dilemma. And sooner or later SeaWorld is going to have to bite the bullet again, just as it has done today with the issue of captive breeding.

Last December, Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, and I presented a day-long public workshop entitled Sea-Pen Sanctuaries: Progressing Toward Better Welfare for Captive Cetaceans at the Society for Marine Mammalogy conference in San Francisco. Throughout the day, an A-list of marine mammal veterinarians, scientists, sanctuary directors and marine engineers outlined the necessary steps towards building a coastal sanctuary for orcas and other cetaceans.

Several realistic plans exist to achieve the goal of retiring captive orcas and others to sanctuaries within the next five years. We would welcome SeaWorld as an authentic collaborator in this overall effort. Only then will the company be the welfare and conservation organization it pretends to be now.

(This article originally appeared on Kimmela. It has been reprinted here with permission.)

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