US theme park operator SeaWorld has announced it will stop breeding killer whales and phase out the iconic orcas following years of controversy over keeping them in captivity.
Attendance at SeaWorld dropped after the 2013 release of documentary Blackfish, which was critical of the orca programme. SeaWorld reported a fourth-quarter loss of $11 million (£7.6m) in February.
The company appeared to acknowledge that the criticism had helped drive the decision to end the breeding programme. It also announced it would stop using the orcas in theatrical shows in the parks, instead introducing “new, inspiring natural orca encounters”.
Joel Manby, president of SeaWorld Entertainment, said: “As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it. By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will encounter these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter.”
The shows will begin next year at the SeaWorld Entertainment San Diego park, before expanding to its San Antonio park and then to the Orlando, Florida, park in 2019.
Orcas have long been a centrepiece of the SeaWorld parks, with shows at the Shamu stadium in San Diego becoming the park’s main draw in the 1970s and helping to make SeaWorld a top tourist attraction.
In its statement making the announcement yesterday, the company said it was also forming a partnership with the Humane Society to help educate guests on animal welfare and conservation issues through interpretive programmes at the parks and by expanded advocacy for wild whales, seals and other marine creatures.
“SeaWorld’s commitment to end breeding of orcas is a long-held goal of many animal advocacy organisations, and we commend the company for making this game-changing commitment,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society.
Criticism over keeping killer whales in captivity increased in 2010 after an orca named Tilikum grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau and pulled her into the pool, killing her. The death was highlighted in Blackfish.
Tilikum, who was also involved in the deaths of two others, is now very sick. He has been at SeaWorld Orlando for 23 years.