SAN DIEGO — The City Council proclaimed March “SeaWorld San Diego Month” Tuesday in honor of the theme park’s 50th anniversary.
The attraction on Mission Bay opened a half-century ago Friday and gained popularity with its “Shamu” orca performances. SeaWorld later built parks in Orlando and San Antonio.
More than 156 million visitors have passed through SeaWorld gates in San Diego.
“Thanks to SeaWorld and its partner, Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, we now have a better understanding of marine life, their challenges, and how we can ensure the protection and education for future generations,” Mayor Kevin Faulconer said. “I think as everyone on this council knows, SeaWorld is one of San Diego’s largest employers.”
Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, whose district represented part of the theme park before council maps were redrawn a couple of years ago, said SeaWorld has made “amazing contributions to San Diego.”
The anniversary comes amid controversy over keeping orcas in captivity, which has been heightened by the documentary “Blackfish.
A Democratic assemblyman in Santa Monica has introduced a bill to ban shows involving killer whales. Assemblyman Richard Bloom said the legislation was inspired by “Blackfish.”
Before the City Council met Tuesday, activists with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demonstrated outside, holding signs and handing out fliers. PETA has for years accused SeaWorld of mistreating animals.
During the meeting, six members of the public criticized SeaWorld or called on park officials to modernize their facilities to provide their animals with more freedom.
“Captivity, or a captive display, is not conservation, and I urge you not to confuse them,” Jane Cartmill, of San Diego Animal Activists, told the council members.
She said SeaWorld’s research is largely focused on captive breeding and doesn’t benefit wild populations.
“We’re asking the city to join the rest of public opinion by choosing not to support Sea World,” said Katie Arth, PETA.
Local Economic experts said the city has no choice, but to support the marine life park.
“It probably has about a billion dollar economic impact and is probably responsible for about somewhere between 8 to 10 thousand jobs in the region,” said Erik Bruvold, President of National University’s Institute for Policy Research.
Bruvold said Sea World is one of San Diego’s main attractions and it’s also the city’s biggest tenant, paying some $12 to 14 million a year for a lease.
“By ordinance that money flows into improvements at Mission Bay, Balboa Park and Mission Trails parks,” said Bruvold.
In a statement to Fox 5, Sea World spokesman David Koontz thanked Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the city council for the proclamation, “We are very appreciative of the 50-year partnership we have with the city and we look forward to continuing our close relationship in the future.”
“By honoring a company that abuses animals, we’re celebrating cruelty to animals and that’s not something the city should be in step with,” said Arth.