The California Coastal Commission meeting in Long Beach on Thursday unanimously approved a $100 million expansion project proposed by SeaWorld San Diego to double the size of its killer whale habitat.
SeaWorld wants to expand the pool from 5.8 million gallons to 9.6 million gallons for a new exhibit it calls "The Blue World." The expansion includes orca-friendly pools 50 feet deep that contain spots where the killer whales can rub and scratch themselves.
The Coastal Commission staff recommended the project be approved with some conditions, chief among them: SeaWorld cannot populate the pools with orcas caught in the wild and cannot use genetic material from wild orcas to breed killer whales in captivity.
"The California Coastal Commission did right by orcas in requiring, as a condition of approval for the Blue World Project, that SeaWorld stop breeding them, which will ultimately end captivity for long-suffering orcas in California," PETA spokesman David Perle said in a statement released after the vote.
The commission oversees development along the coast, and SeaWorld falls under its bailiwick because it is along San Diego's bayfront.
The expansion of SeaWorld's killer whale habitat is the biggest issue the Coastal Commission has faced in its 40 years.
The commission received some 200,000 emails and 50,000 letters and moved its regularly scheduled meeting from Long Beach City Hall to the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center to accommodate the crowd. Every one of the 500 seats was taken, and an overflow crowd of about 150 people stood outside.
SeaWorld San Diego President John Reilly called the issue before the panel "a land use decision," not a moratorium on zoos and aquariums. He said the project is a good use of coastal land, inspiring the next generation of marine biologists.
Reilly expressed his disappointment after the commission vote.
"We are disappointed with the conditions that the California Coastal Commission placed on their approval of the Blue World Project, and will carefully review and consider our options," Reilly said in a statement. "Breeding is a natural, fundamental and important part of an animal’s life and depriving a social animal of the right to reproduce is inhumane."