Legislators tabled the bill until 2015, after more research is conducted. (Valery Hache/Getty Images)
Legislators tabled the bill until 2015, after more research is conducted. (Valery Hache/Getty Images)

A high-profile bill that would have killed SeaWorld’s famous killer whale shows has been shelved until further notice in California’s Assembly.

Assembly Democrat Richard Bloom’s measure was inspired by the popular documentary, “Blackfish,” which criticizes the San Diego theme park for keeping the large, intelligent whales in enclosed concrete pens. In addition to barring the live shows, the measure would have banned the import and export of orcas, and forced SeaWorld to move its 10 killer whales to a larger sea pen.

The documentary, shown repeatedly on CNN in recent months, inspired grass-roots momentum for Bloom’s bill. Supporters packed a Capitol hearing room for Tuesday morning’s hearing. It took more than 15 minutes for all the advocates who showed up to simply list their names and voice their support for the measure.

So they were surely disappointed when Water Parks And Wildlife Committee Chair Anthony Rendon essentially punted the issue off California’s legislative agenda until next year. Although the Democrat made it clear he supported the bill “for both ethical and philosophical reasons, Rendon recommended the legislation be put on hold until next year, so that further studies can be conducted.

“This would give us reasoned and focused ability to make the right decision,” Rendon said. The move also means that incoming Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, who represents San Diego and has voiced strong support for SeaWorld, would play a major role in determining whether the measure advances.

Atkins held her cards close in a noncommittal statement, saying, “The analysis and discussion that will take place during the interim study period will strengthen our understanding of the issues and will lead to a more informed decision.”

Before the committee tabled the bill, Bloom argued SeaWorld’s 10 orcas live in a harmful environment.

“Their swimming pool-sized habitats are just a fraction of what they need – by some estimates, one ten-thousandth,” said the Santa Monica legislator. “They must undergo extensive, stressful training and performance regimens on a strict, clockwork schedule. And they’re separated from their offspring and live in pods of unrelated individuals.”

SeaWorld hit back hard.

“This is not a serious proposal,” said lobbyist Scott Wetch, calling the research at the heart of Blackfish “a glorified term paper.”

Wetch called the ban on live performances “the don’t ask-don’t tell for whales,” arguing exercise activities similar to SeaWorld’s shows would still be allowed, as long as there was no audience.

Wetch warned that if the measure passed, SeaWorld “would be forced to move these whales immediately. To Texas, to Florida and to other parts of the world. So Mr. Bloom’s well-intended bill would have no consequence for these whales.”

According to SeaWorld, 20 percent of the world’s captive orcas currently live at the San Diego park.

Again and again, SeaWorld representatives attacked the credibility of “Blackfish.” SeaWorld San Diego president John Reilly said it was “dominated by falsehoods and questionable filmmaking techniques.”

Rendon, who is from Los Angeles County, ended the hearing by dismissing that argument. The film’s accuracy, he argued, “doesn’t really matter to me. I’m fundamentally opposed, ethically opposed, to holding large animals in captivity.” That said, Rendon’s decision ended the measure’s chances of passing during this legislative session.

Follow Scott Detrow on Twitter.


Scott Detrow

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report.

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