SeaWorld’s announcement Monday that it would end its orca shows was greeted with muted praise from some lawmakers and activists who have been clamoring for the park to change its treatment of killer whales.
The announcement came during a meeting with investors, when SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby said that its San Diego show — “One Ocean” — will end next year and be replaced in 2017 with an “all new Orca experience” that will emphasize the “natural behavior of whales.”
Naomi Rose, a marine scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, told NBC News that the shift was “interesting” because it appeared to replace entertainment programs with education.
But, she added: “This is incremental. It’s never going to get them to the end goal of truly improving the situation for the orcas there.”
SeaWorld — which has 24 whales at three parks in California, Texas and Florida — has been under increasing pressure since the 2013 release of the documentary “Blackfish,” which argued that the situation was dire — that placing the animals in captivity made them violent, neurotic and decreased their life span.
In a public relations campaign that followed the documentary’s release, SeaWorld excoriated “Blackfish,” saying that instead of providing “fair and balanced treatment of a complex subject, the film is inaccurate and misleading.”
Still, SeaWorld’s attendance sagged, and so did its profits. The Associated Press reported earlier this year that the company shares had fallen 37 percent.
In 2014, a California state lawmaker, Richard Bloom, introduced legislation that would have banned SeaWorld from keeping orcas for “performance or entertainment purposes,” and, on Friday, California Rep. Adam Schiff announced a similar federal law.
California’s Coastal Commission also weighed in, approving a $100 million expansion last month at SeaWorld San Diego that is contingent on a captive breeding ban. After the decision, NBC San Diego reported, Manby said that “depriving these social animals of the natural and fundamental right to reproduce is inhumane and we do not support this condition.”
On Monday, it was unclear if SeaWorld was planning similar changes at its Texas or Florida parks. Nor was it clear what would happen to the whales in San Diego, added Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.
“We’d like to have a plan that would get them into suitable environments,” Pacelle told NBC News Monday evening.
A news conference scheduled for Monday afternoon with SeaWorld San Diego president John Reilly was canceled.
In a statement Monday, Schiff described the changes as “a welcome step along the path towards ending the captivity of these magnificent creatures,” while Bloom said in a post on Twitter that it was “welcome news,” though he added that there was “no word on ending captive breeding or other issues.”
For Pacelle, there were still too many unanswered questions.
“We hope it does mark a sincere transition to a new business model,” he told NBC News. “What we heard today is not necessarily that.”