SeaWorld has hit back against a California state agency that banned the company from breeding orcas in captivity as a condition for approving the struggling San Diego theme park's $100 million expansion proposal.
The lawsuit claims that the California Coastal Commission, which oversees coastal development, lacks jurisdiction over marine mammals, which are typically regulated by federal authorities.
"The condition forces SeaWorld to either agree to the eventual demise of its lawful and federally regulated orca exhibition, or withdraw the permit application and forego the effort to enhance the orcas' habitat," said attorneys for SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., the parent company of SeaWorld San Diego.
The commission could not comment on the lawsuit, according to the Associated Press, but in a statement the agency said it "stands by its decision in October to protect killer whales."
The new condition, which was attached to the commission's approval of the park's expansion, set to open in 2018, prohibits all whale breeding, including the use of artificial insemination. It also bans the sale, trade, or transfer of captive orcas.
The decision, which was made following a seven-hour-long hearing, pushes the struggling marine park further to the brink of closing, as it would mean that the 11 remaining orcas at Sea World would be the last to live in the park.
"The Coastal Commission process became unhinged," the lawsuit states. "Animal rights activists appeared at the Coastal Commission hearing and vilified SeaWorld in their 'testimony.'"
The lawsuit seeks to remove the breeding restrictions or to convene a new hearing of its development proposal.
SeaWorld has been battered by negative press in recent years as former orca trainers have spoken out against the company's practices, first in the documentary Blackfish and in a book, Beneath the Surface, by former trainer John Hargrove. Both the film and the book claim that SeaWorld whales suffered serious health problems and were poorly treated while in captivity.
The company, which operates two other parks in Orlando and San Antonio, is battling two lawsuits over its treatment of animals: one brought by the animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and another by shareholders.
Park attendance and the company's stock price fell last year, which the company attributed to greater regulatory scrutiny of its business, according to a memo to investors.
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