One of the ripple effects of the provocative documentary Blackfish, which explores the deaths of SeaWorld trainers and concludes they stemmed in part from the park's orca management practices, was Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, introducing Assembly Bill 2140.
Noting the massive interest his bill has attracted and conceding that committee members seemed "unprepared" to cast a fully informed vote, Bloom agreed on Tuesday to hold the bill for an interim study. That process could take more than a year.
"I think that allowing more time for you committee members to really dig into the information that is out there and come to your conclusions in a fashion that allows careful consideration is not a bad idea," Bloom said.
The debate preceding the decision to push back a decision showed how SeaWorld's orcas have become a focal point of fierce debate, raising questions about basic animal conservation practices and spotlighting SeaWorld's economic clout in San Diego.
Testifying before a hearing room overflowing with bill advocates wearing "Sea a New World" stickers, many hailing from throughout California and one of whom said she traveled from Rome for the occasion, Bloom described orcas as unique among mammals given their intelligence and their nuanced social structures. He said prolonged captivity can spur aggressive orca behavior and cause the creatures to have shorter lives than their wild counterparts.
"Science now knows it is not in the best interest of orcas to be held in captivity. They do not thrive and, indeed, they suffer," said Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, the bill's sponsor.
A former SeaWorld orca trainer supporting the bill detailed a range of what he called abnormal physical and behavioral consequences of captivity, from sagging dorsal fins among adult males to orcas exhibiting "obsessive" behavior like injuring themselves by banging their heads against their tanks. He described unusually aggressive whales and rued the "deeply unsettling experience" of separating young whales from their mothers.
"Make this the last generation of killer whales in captivity," John Hargrove, the former trainer, urged the committee.
The bill would not require SeaWorld to release orcas into the wild, Bloom stressed. Given the youth of some of the park's whales, he added, visitors could likely see orcas for decades - just not performing tricks in elaborate shows.
In addition to emphasizing SeaWorld San Diego's importance as a tourist hub and source of jobs, SeaWorld officials defend their orca management practices as humane and state-of-the-art, arguing that orca shows keep the whales stimulated and ensure they are getting the highest level of attention from a range of professionals. They dismissed Blackfish as a piece of propaganda shaded by the rhetoric of the animal rights movement.
"To be clear, the whales at SeaWorld are thriving," said Dr. Chris Dold, vice president of veterinary services for SeaWorld San Diego, pointing to steadily increasing survival rates for captive whales and arguing that ""every part of the bill, individually and collectively, will increase their health risks" by disrupting their current environment and routines.
Dold and other critics of the bill also called the SeaWorld orcas both an uplifting educational experience for visitors, promoting conservation by exposing people to the animals, and an invaluable research resource.
The sole San Diego lawmaker who sits on the committee, Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, expressed support for the bill and sharply questioned SeaWorld, noting the park's resistance in labor fights to proposals like a living wage initiative.
"Being the only person who actually resides in San Diego on this committee, I'm a little disturbed about spending another year and a half talking about this issue," Gonzalez said, adding that "not all San Diego has benefited from the work of SeaWorld."
PHOTO: SeaWorld Adventure Park trainer Ken Peters, left, looks to a killer whale during a performance Nov. 26, 2006 at Shamu Stadium inside the park in San Diego. Peters was injured Wednesday Nov. 29, 2006, suffering a broken foot.