Coastal Commission approves expansion of SeaWorld orca tanks

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LONG BEACH, Calif. -- In a decision that throws the future of SeaWorld San Diego's killer whale attraction into question, the California Coastal Commission Thursday approved the park's plans to expand its orca tanks, but banned the facility from conducting any future breeding of captive whales to fill them.

The ruling was a blow to SeaWorld and a stunning victory for animal-rights activists who have blasted the park's treatment of whales.

SeaWorld officials had agreed earlier not to increase its orca population except through occasional captive births or rescues authorized by government agencies. Park officials said they have not captured orcas in the wild for decades.

“We are disappointed with the conditions that the California Coastal Commission placed on their approval of the Blue World Project, and will carefully review and consider our options,'' Seaworld San Diego President John Reilly said. “Breeding is a natural, fundamental and important part of an animal's life and depriving a social animal of the right to reproduce is inhumane.''

Officials with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said the decisions will “ultimately end captivity for long-suffering orcas in California.''

“SeaWorld admitted it intended to breed more to fill new tanks,'' according to PETA. “But the commission's action today ensures that no more orcas will be condemned to a non-life of loneliness, deprivation and misery. SeaWorld is a sea circus and the orcas are their abused elephants. PETA wants SeaWorld to stop building tanks and start emptying the ones they've got and send the orcas to coastal sanctuaries.''

Executives at the theme park on Mission Bay wanted to build two orca pools, one filled with 5.2 million gallons of water and the other with a capacity of 450,000 gallons, to replace the current 1.7 million gallon tank. The project also would include replacing bathroom facilities for visitors.

As the hours-long meeting dragged on, Reilly told the commission the park would be willing to accept a cap of 15 orcas, but banning breeding at the park would eventually lead to the “extinction'' of the orca program.

The park has 11 killer whales.

Dr. Paul Ponganis, a research physiologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said last week that the project will result in new opportunities for researchers to conduct studies that will benefit killer whales and other cetaceans in the wild.

The commission staff recommended approval after SeaWorld officials pledged that the facility will not house any orcas taken from the wild after Feb. 12, 2014, nor will it utilize killer whale genetic material taken from the wild after the same date.

SeaWorld officials said the project is supported by the national and state associations of zoos and aquariums, some veterinarians and researchers, and a bipartisan group of local elected officials.

Stephen Wells, executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said after that vote that SeaWorld's business “is circling the drain as an enlightened public is objecting to the confinement of orcas in bleak bathtubs for the sake of entertainment.''

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