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Bill to ban orca breeding filed in House faces pushback from SeaWorld

Orcas perform tricks for guests at the One Ocean show at Sea World in Orlando in June. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Published Jan. 12, 2018

A bill that would outlaw the breeding and performing of killer whales in Florida has cleared the initial hurdle that kept it off the table last year: getting a lawmaker to file it in the first place.

In an effort to solidify a voluntary policy change SeaWorld made two years ago, Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, introduced in the House of Representatives the Florida Orca Protection Act. It moved to the Natural Resources & Public Lands Subcommittee on Friday, but Moskowitz said he anticipates a fierce blowback from the marine park that could hinder progress.

"They had been out there trying to prevent the bill from getting filed by any representative," he said. "If they hear the bill, members will vote for this, so (Sea World) is going to work to prevent it from being heard."

Former Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, was interested in filing the bill in 2016 but changed her mind after meeting with SeaWorld officials, she confirmed. Representatives from the marine park met with Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, last month after he sent the bill to drafting. Their lack of support was clear, Diamond said.

SeaWorld, which owns six of the seven orcas in captivity in Florida, voluntarily changed its policy in 2016 to end breeding and phase out performing. But as the publicly traded company continues to bleed profits and visitors, advocates fear SeaWorld could reverse that policy at any time.

IN DEPTH COVERAGE: Advocates push orca breeding law as SeaWorld's policy appears murky

The organization's leadership is also changing. 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.

While SeaWorld's attendance is on a decline, China's aquarium industry is booming with 55 marine parks today and 27 under way, according to the China Cetacean Alliance. California passed a law identical to the Florida bill in 2016, making the killer whales there the last generation in captivity in the state.

SeaWorld keeps 10 orcas in San Diego, six in Orlando and five in San Antonio, Texas, parks. The only other orca 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.

"Sea World has come out and said they are going to do all this stuff and I applaud them, that's fantastic news," Moskowitz said. "I think it's important we put it into law for them to hold them to their word and prevent future corporations from going into this business."

In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, SeaWorld spokesman Travis Claytor said because the company has already committed to stop breeding orcas, "the legislation is unneeded and distracts from the great work being done to positively impact Florida's wildlife." He declined to comment on SeaWorld's efforts to quash the bill.

Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney Lindsay Larris said the pushback from SeaWorld suggests the company wants freedom to change the policy in the future, emphasizing the need for a law. On Feb. 5, the advocacy group 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 practices.

"We want to make sure this is really the last generation of orcas subjected to captivity, and we want to make sure Sea World is held accountable for the promise it made in 2016," Larris said. "Doing it sooner rather than later will make sure no more orcas are born accidentally in captivity."

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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