15 min read

Blackfish's Jeffrey Ventre: Our Work Against SeaWorld Is Not Nearly Done

Amidst the Blackfish backlash, toxic SeaWorld throws a bone to California politicians and Wall Street. Instead of responding to public pressure and collapsing stock, SeaWorld doubles down on captivity. In lieu of taking the proverbial high road (phasing out shows, placing its female killer whales on oral contraception, and leading the way on coastal sanctuaries) SeaWorld pompously announces more captivity, more pools, more breeding, and international expansion.

What just happened?

The proposed Blue World Project is a media play. Plain and simple. Rolled out to a live audience with a suspenseful unveiling, replete with rumors planted the day before, and some ballpark figures provided to Wall Street. It was a spectacle.There isn't much information on how the Blue World Project would impact the Mission Bay ecosystem. As recently as 2012, SeaWorld was cited and fined for polluting it. Subsequently, its hard to believe that SeaWorld can begin digging a massive hole on city property, with additional water treatment equipment, without due process. This would include environmental impact studies and approvals from regulatory agencies including the California Coastal Commission and the city itself. SeaWorld leases the land from San Diego. Check out this excerpt from Frank Gromlie in the San Diego Free Press, October 23, 2012:

SeaWorld is not just any corporate entity. Outside of the thousands of birds crapping in the water, one of the biggest polluters of Mission Bay is SeaWorld itself. Just earlier this year, SeaWorld was fined $6,000 for dumping excessive ammonia and animal waste into the Bay. [See more here.]
SeaWorld is the largest discharger of water into the Bay and has been a known polluter of the body of water, as the bay has been on California's list of impaired water bodies for several years as it does not meet the Clean Water Act standards.

Next, note the relatively long timeline for implementation, and also how it will happen one park at a time. This gives the #SeaCircus plenty of wiggle room and lowers risk.

A large proposal that will likely require city and regulatory approval

If California's Assembly Bill 2140 (AB-2140, available here) passes, the San Diego "Blackfish puppy-mill" idea will likely evaporate, as breeding captive killer whales would then be illegal. Faced with that, SeaWorld could halt the plans, or even shift the project to Orlando, a site that makes more sense, once you remove the politics. (I'll discuss this in a moment.)

In general, company officials have made it clear that expanding the breeding program is a big reason for the proposed addition. Regarding its business model, which includes the unethical artificial insemination of unnaturally young female killer whales, SeaWorld CEO Jim Atchinson told The Today Show last week, "We make no apologies for what we do and how we do it."

Here's the deal. SeaWorld is banking that this gesture will win it votes in the California legislature, and don't expect quick action. I predict major construction on Blue World (at least in San Diego) will not begin until after a final vote on AB-2140 is counted. The company may stage a "ground breaking ceremony" for the press. But one shovel-load does not dig a 50-foot pool with added water treatment capability, plumbing and an "orca treadmill."

Why San Diego?

According to this report by WKMG-TV/Orlando as well as the SeaWorld web page, "the San Diego project is expected to open in 2018. New killer whale homes will then be constructed at SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio." Considering that SeaWorld's Orlando park is more profitable, sees more visitors, is home base for corporate headquarters, and has cheaper construction costs, you'd think that the Blue World Project would start there. So what gives?
Choosing San Diego is a strategic business move. This accomplishes at least five things for SeaWorld.An artist's rendering of the proposed Blue World Project.

1. It shows that they're doing something in response to public sentiment and collapsing stock value.

2. This proposal provides political cover to vote down Blackfish Bill AB-2140. SeaWorld gives a lot of money to campaigns in California, and politicians are happy to take it. Assemblymen who might buck public opinion to strike down the bill can now cite the Blue World Project as an example of how the company is evolving.

To get a feel for public opinion in the state, watch this heartwarming video about three young ladies who delivered 1.2 million signatures to the California Assembly in support of a bill that would ban captive breeding of Killer Whales in the state.

3. It shows Wall Street they're "all in," and gives pro-SeaWorld Voice of San Diego plenty of feel good stories to publish. Although they hosted a good live debate, but tends to frame SeaWorld's presence in San Diego as a beneficial, economic one without much regard for the killer whales suffering in captivity. When captivity of killer whales gets reduced to economics or by Wall Street success it misses the point.

4. If AB-2140 is shot down and SeaWorld gets its wish, the new pool will become a Blackfish "puppy mill" for SeaWorld's overseas expansion. In my opinion, SeaWorld couldn't be happier with the ongoing Russian captures (more genetic material), and is looking carefully at opportunities in the United Arab Emirates, specifically Dubai, where there is already a large marine life park itching to get some killer whales.

Atlantis The Palm was heavily promoting its marine park on Emirates Airlines.

I've written about this with co-author John Jett Ph.D in an upcoming textbook chapter regarding animals in entertainment. I believe that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is gearing up for killer whales, and combined with company statements, will likely get them from SeaWorld. This effort, to breed animals as quickly as possible, is a way to get more animals into places like the UAE, for a very hefty price tag.

Departing Dubai International Airport. Boeing 777 Emirates Airlines. (Personal photo)

With plenty of money, a desire for Killer Whales, and pre-existing captivity infrastructure, Atlantis The Palm is a predictable destination for SeaWorld, and the killer whales it is actively breeding.

Placing killer whales in Dubai where temperatures regularly exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit, with little regulation or oversight, is a disturbing thought.

5. It changes the conversation, at least temporarily. SeaWorld has been getting bashed in the media, lately. This is a way to change the subject, for a while.

Get active links to all of these Blackfish Wednesday headlines here.

What can the animal rights and Blackfish movements do about it?

California Assemblyman Richard Bloom needs help from a growing coalition of concerned citizens. Consider following Mr. Bloom on Twitter and helping him spread the word about AB-2140.

More "Blackfish" leads to a broader community

The Blackfish Effect will continue to happen. Intermittent airings by CNN, stellar sales at Amazon for the DVD, and availability at Netflix and Red Box continues to bring aboard more and more people that wish to end captivity. Some fine folks hope for the right of "bodily liberty" for "non human persons." These awakened friends add to a growing army of regular people that seek justice for killer whales, an end to poaching, sensible regulation of farms, and more oversight for corporations.

SeaWorld is worried, and they should be, because a critical mass of informed consumers has been achieved, with backlash coming from people and students from all walks of life, as well as from both sides of the political aisle. For us, as a community, its time to craft the transformational political change we need, and that involves taking on a corporation at the ballot box. The Blackfish Effect needs to be converted into political action. That is happening, and please tell your friends.

The animal justice movement is growing with each airing of "Blackfish." Thank you, Gabriela Cowperthwaite and producer Manny Oteyza.

"Once you see it, you cannot un-see it."

"Blackfish" is a one-way door, a gateway, and a powerful tool. SeaWorld is currently caught in the Blackfish Effect. To get a sense of how the Blackfish Effect has affected the lives of some of the cast members of the film, check out this recent panel:

In summary, SeaWorld really doesn't get it, and hopefully changes can be made in middle and upper-management that will improve the quality of the management team and improve the future lives of the killer whales in its care. The Blue World Project does not address the issues of broken teeth, collapsed dorsal fins, diminished quality of life, social strife, and shortened lifespans, all of which are caused by captivity. "Blackfish" remains a critical tool in a growing movement, and AB-2140 is the cure for what ails a toxic SeaWorld.