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SANTA MONICA, California (Reuters) - A California lawmaker introduced a bill on Friday to ban live performances and captive breeding of killer whales in the state, a measure that would force the SeaWorld San Diego marine theme park to end is popular "Shamu" shows.
The measure was introduced by state Assemblyman Richard Bloom, who told a news conference his interest in the issue was sparked by last year's documentary "Blackfish," dealing with the treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld parks.
The film, which SeaWorld has criticized as a misleading, inaccurate piece of animal rights propaganda, explores circumstances leading to the 2010 death of a top SeaWorld trainer, Dawn Brancheau, who was pulled underwater and drowned by an orca she had worked and performed with in Florida.
Trainers have not been allowed back into the water with killer whales during performances at SeaWorld parks since Brancheau's death.
The film concludes that keeping killer whales penned up in captivity is inherently cruel and that SeaWorld has persisted in the practice because orcas are the primary attraction in its highly lucrative theme park business.
"There is no justification for the continued display of orcas for entertainment purposes," Bloom said in prepared remarks. "These beautiful creatures are much too large and far too intelligent to be confined in small, concrete tanks for their entire lives."
SeaWorld, which also operates marine parks in Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio, Texas, called Bloom's proposal "severely flawed on multiple levels" and questioned its validity under the U.S. or state constitution.
The company also said the individuals "he has chosen to associate with for today's press conference are well-known extreme animal rights activists, many of whom regularly campaign against SeaWorld and other accredited marine mammal parks and institutions."
Joining Bloom in announcing his bill were Naomi Rose, a marine mammal biologist with the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of "Blackfish," and two former trainers.
SeaWorld San Diego is home to 10 killer whales, seven of which were born in captivity. It is the only facility in California with orcas on display and thus the only one immediately affected by Bloom's bill.
In addition to banning all performances and captive breeding of orcas in the state, the measure would prohibit anyone in California from engaging in the import or export of orcas or their genetic material.
The bill also would require current captive orcas to be retired and returned to the wild when possible, or to "sea pens" when available, but allows them in the meantime to remain on public display in existing enclosures.
SeaWorld has denied mistreating any killer whales and points to its involvement in marine mammal research, conservation, rescue and public education.
"Our passionate employees are the true animal advocates - the pioneering scientists, researchers, veterinarians, trainers, marine biologists, educators, aquarists, aviculturists and conservationists who for 50 years have cared for the animals at SeaWorld and also saved thousands in the wild that are injured, ill or orphaned," the company said.
Rose said only two dozen killer whales live in captivity in the United States - one at the Miami Seaquarium and the rest in the three SeaWorld parks.
While the precise language has not been finalized, the legislation is expected to allow the continued display of the whales in the existing 7-million-gallon pool complex at Shamu Stadium in San Diego, said Sean MacNeil, chief of staff for Bloom. Shamu is the name of the first killer whale brought to the San Diego park in the 1960s.
The bill could pose a political dilemma for state lawmaker Toni Atkins, the Assembly majority leader who will soon become the speaker, whose San Diego district includes SeaWorld.
"I have not seen the bill yet, but I respect my colleague and value what SeaWorld does economically and scientifically for our region," she said. "I will carefully consider all the issues and opinions surrounding this legislation."
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman; editing by Gunna Dickson and Richard Chang