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'Blackfish' prompts California lawmaker to propose orca ban

Crediting “Blackfish” with opening his eyes to the plight of captive killer whales, a California lawmaker is proposing tough new legislation aimed at protecting orcas.

On Friday, Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D–Santa Monica), introduced a measure that would ban the import and export of killer whales in California, as well as the artificial insemination of captive orcas. It would become illegal to “hold in captivity, or use, a wild-caught or captive-bred orca for performance or entertainment purposes"; violaters would face up to six months in jail and/or be fined up to $100,000.

"I found it very, very alarming," Bloom said, referring to "Blackfish." "Seeing the images and hearing the various testimonies of folks who've been formerly employed by SeaWorld, the marine mammal scientists and the orcas themselves was really striking and it did affect me."

After seeing the documentary, Bloom said he consulted with a number of scientists and toured SeaWorld San Diego before deciding to draft the bill.

The film's director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who has rallied public action on the issue, said she was heartened by Bloom's move. "I see the film as the portal of entry for [Bloom]," Cowperthwaite said. "But what's so affirming about it is that they did all their own research without consulting me and we all came to the same conclusion."

In an emailed statement, SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides said "we cannot comment on Assemblyman Bloom’s proposed legislation until we see it." However, she called those planning to show up for the bill's announcement at the Santa Monica pier on Friday -- including Cowperthwaite and two former SeaWorld trainers -- "well known extreme animal rights activists."

"Our passionate employees are the true animal advocates," Bides wrote, " ... who for 50 years have cared for the animals at SeaWorld and also saved thousands in the wild that are injured, ill or orphaned."

Since the documentary's theatrical release last July -- and subsequent debut on CNN in October -- SeaWorld has faced a backlash from celebrities and protestors calling for a boycott of the theme park.

If it passes, Bloom's bill would probably lead to the shuttering of SeaWorld's Shamu Stadium -- where orcas perform elaborate tricks for park guests -- at least in San Diego. (The company also has parks in Orlando, Fla., and in San Antonio.) Under the proposed law, the 10 orcas currently housed at the San Diego location would need to be "rehabilitated and returned to the wild where possible" or kept in a sea pen.

In a recent interview with The Times, though, SeaWorld President and Chief Executive Jim Atchison made clear he had no interest in creating such a pen, in which whales would be held in a contained part of the ocean.

“It’s not something we have or would consider at all,” Atchison said. “We see no need for it. Our animals have the best care in the world and have their needs met more than adequately.”

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