The news: It's been a year since the documentary Blackfish made waves across the country, sparking a debate surrounding killer whales in captivity and how they're incorporated in entertainment.
Since then, SeaWorld -- the chief target of the documentary -- has been besieged by high-profile protests and boycotts. The vocal outrage has led to a dramatic 33% decrease in stock prices for the company. While SeaWorld has continued to deny Blackfish's allegations and has accused the documentary crew of spreading misinformation, it is finally taking measures to address the public and financial backlash.
Since news of its troubling financial situation broke, SeaWorld executives have announced they would upgrade the orca enclosures, which would give the whales more room to live and swim and hopefully limit the amount of psychological damage they experience. And on Wednesday, the company revealed that it will make another big, operational change: It will forbid trainers from going into the water with the whales.
Why are they doing this? Blackfish was inspired by the 2010 death of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by a whale that had a history of traumatic damage and aggressive behavior. And while the documentary ostensibly focused on improving conditions for orcas and potentially ending captivity programs, it also raised the issue of trainer safety, and how deaths like Brancheau's could be prevented.
Experts have been careful to make the distinction that while most orcas are not violent by nature, a lifetime of traumatic captivity could induce the whales to behave in ways that could put their human trainers in danger.
To that end, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued citations against SeaWorld by forbidding its trainers from going into the water with the whales. A federal appeals court upheld the OSHA citations in April, and though SeaWorld has been adamant about fighting against this measure in the past, the new announcement indicates that it will not be going to the Supreme Court over the controversy.
These are baby steps for SeaWorld. SeaWorld's trainers have been pulled from the water after the company faced ample outside pressure. The company wants to avoid a costly appeal process that would draw even more attention to its current controversies. And while this is the a step in the right direction, there are still many changes that the company has left to make.
As of now, SeaWorld's vow to nearly double the size of orca enclosures and contribute $10 million to orca research will hopefully improve living conditions for the whales and help researchers figure out the best way to keep these animals in captivity or rehabilitate them in the wild. For those who believe in the validity of shutting down such captivity programs, this may not seem like enough — but if its recent financial troubles have taught SeaWorld anything, it's that it can no longer sweep its problems under the rug. This may be the first of many changes to come in the future.