California Coastal Commission staff has recommended approval of a plan by SeaWorld San Diego to expand its killer whale tanks, despite objections by some animal rights advocates, according to documents made available Friday.
The theme park on Mission Bay wants 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.
Animal rights groups -- who have been trying for years to get the orcas released into the wild -- contend that under the SeaWorld plan the whales might have larger tanks, but are still captive.
"A stamp of approval on SeaWorld's newest orca prison would be bad for the orcas and for California," said Jared Goodman, director of animal law for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation.
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 also agreed to not increase its orca population except through the occasional birth, or rescues authorized by government agencies.
"The proposed Blue World project will provide not only an expanded habitat for whales, but also new opportunities for researchers to conduct studies that will benefit killer whales and other cetaceans in the wild," said Dr. Paul Ponganis, a research physiologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "In addition, a dynamic animal environment like Blue World may inspire a host of future marine biologists, veterinarians, and other scientists."
Goodman, however, described the project as a "Hail Mary" effort by the theme park to recover from recent bad publicity and falling profits.
"These orcas would still be deprived of everything that is natural and important to them, would still be drugged, and would still die at young ages from captivity-related causes," Goodman said.
According to SeaWorld, 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.
Commission staff attached eight conditions to its recommendation that are designed to limit the project's impact on the surrounding area.
The matter is scheduled to go before the commission Oct. 8 at a meeting in Long Beach.