The Blackfish Effect: California Lawmaker Proposes Ban on Captive Orcas

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While the documentary Blackfish may have been snubbed at the Oscars, it appears that the film’s creators may get the kind of real world impact that resonates far beyond the big screen.

Today, California State Assemblymember Richard Bloom, a democrat from Santa Monica, is set to announce the Orca Welfare and Safety Act which, if successful, would effectively ban all killer whale performances at Sea World.

The bill presents a host of protections and would ensure that the 10 orcas currently held at SeaWorld either be “rehabilitated and returned to the wild where possible,” and if that’s not possible, then be “transferred and held in a sea pen that is open to the public and not used for performance or entertainment purposes.”

State Assemblymember Lorena Gonzales, who represents San Diego, the city that serves as home to SeaWorld, has gone on record saying she intends to support the bill, writing on Facebook:

SeaWorld’s reputation of treating its workers poorly dates back to its opening 50 years ago. It’s about time we continue this conversation about job quality and workplace safety at Sea World whether it involves groundskeepers, concessions workers or killer whale trainers. Recent evidence suggests its record with orcas isn’t much better. I’m looking forward to having an honest conversation about Sea World’s business practices and how they can really be an icon that makes San Diego proud.

The folks at SeaWorld beg to differ.  A spokesperson already released a statement touting SeaWorld’s place as a “global leader in the zoological and animal welfare world” before proceeding to blame the messenger, stating:

While we cannot comment on Assemblyman Bloom’s proposed legislation until we see it, the individuals he has chosen to associate with for today’s press conference are well known extreme animal rights activists, many of whom regularly campaign against SeaWorld and other accredited marine mammal parks and institutions.

Lawmakers in South Carolina and New York state have previously introduced legislation to protect orca whales but both of those states lacked the orca population to make the legislation more than a symbolic gesture.

Bloom’s legislation means business and was made possible by the shift in public opinion generated by Blackfish. In fact, Assemblymember Bloom is said to have contacted Gabriela Cowperther, the director of Blackfish, for help with the legislation.

Also on hand was marine scientist Dr. Naomi Rose who works at the Animal Welfare Institute and helped draft the legislation.  She describes the “The Blackfish effect” that helped make the bill possible.

The Blackfish effect has never been in greater evidence—everything has led to this, the first serious legislative proposal to prohibit the captive display of this highly intelligent and social species. SeaWorld should join with this effort rather than continue to fight it. They can be on the right side of history.

Public opinion has certainly shifted.

Just this past week Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, faced public backlash for announcing a partnership with SeaWorld with tweets encouraging her to watch Blackfish and rethink the partnership.

SeaWorld is certain to spend a lot of time and energy dismissing Blackfish as a piece of propaganda but the fact remains that the movie has been devastatingly effective.

Oscar or not, the perception of SeaWorld that Blackfish created is resonating.

Photo by Robert Pitman working for the United States Antarctic Program, public domain

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Sara Haile-Mariam

Sara Haile-Mariam