Amid strong lobbying from SeaWorld against it, a bill to ban orca breeding and future captivity in Florida has died in a legislative subcommittee.
The Florida Orca Protection Act aimed to cement into law what SeaWorld voluntarily adopted in 2016 — an end to its killer whale breeding program and a phase-out of performances as public attitudes about whales in captivity have shifted. California easily passed its own version of the law that same year after SeaWorld dropped an initial fight against the crack down.
Advocates say the marine park’s resistance to making its policy legally binding in Florida, home of its global headquarters, suggests its commitment to making this generation of orcas the last in captivity could be short-lived.
"This shouldn’t be a controversial issue because it’s just making law out of what SeaWorld says its corporate policy is," Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Lindsay Larris said. "There’s no accountability. It should be the lawmakers holding them accountable."
State Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, introduced the bill this legislative session after ALDF’s struggle to find a sponsor last year. Former Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, planned to file the bill in 2016 but changed her mind after meeting with SeaWorld officials, she said.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, drafted the bill for this session but decided against filing it after a meeting with SeaWorld officials in December.
SeaWorld spokesman Travis Claytor previously said because the company has already committed to end orca breeding, "the legislation is unneeded and distracts from the great work being done to positively impact Florida’s wildlife." SeaWorld had three lobbyists registered to advocate against the bill this session, according to House records.
The Florida Attractions Association — of which SeaWorld is a member — the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and Florida Retail Federation also lobbied on the bill.
The Florida Orca Protection Act had been pending in the House of Representative’s Natural Resources & Public Lands Subcommittee but did not make the agenda of bills to be heard Tuesday.
Subcommittee Chair Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, said it did not make the cut because it was introduced in the House without a Senate companion, indicating "there is not a strong will to move this issue this year."
But there is no House or Senate rule that says only bills with companion measures may be taken up, said Travis Moore, a lobbyist who worked for ALDF on the orca legislation. It’s common for one chamber to move something legislators feel is a priority in order to negotiate policies with the other side, he said.
"It would be helpful and refreshing if SeaWorld cares enough about their own policy to help us instead of working so hard against establishing their own policy as legal public policy," Moore said. "Their actions are more telling than their words."
There are 22 captive orcas in the United States — SeaWorld has 10 in San Diego, six in Orlando and five in San Antonio, Texas, parks. The other killer whale in America is wild-born Lolita, brought to Miami Seaquarium in 1970. For decades, Lolita has lived alone in a tank just four times the length of her body.
Along with ending breeding and performing, the Florida bill, like California’s law, would have banned companies from shipping semen from killer whales out of the state.
Larris, the ALDF attorney, said that protection was especially crucial as SeaWorld’s ownership, and potential priorities, shift. Chinese investment firm Zhonghong Zhuoye Group acquired a 21 percent stake in the company in March, becoming the largest shareholder. Two Chinese executives now sit on SeaWorld’s board, one as chairman.
SeaWorld’s attendance is on a steady decline with 9 percent fewer visitors last fall and a 10 percent drop in revenue. Meanwhile, China’s aquarium industry is booming with 55 marine parks today and 27 under way, according to the China Cetacean Alliance.
With uncertainty over the SeaWorld killer whales ahead, Larris said ALDF will continue to advocate for this law to be passed next year. ALDF on Feb. 5 will host a screening for lawmakers in Tallahassee of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which detailed the psychological and physical trauma of captivity and is credited with a massive shift in public attitudes about SeaWorld’s practices.
"If we can’t pass the legislation this session, we want to make sure we educate people as much as possible about the issue," she said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.