SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - SeaWorld sued California authorities on Tuesday, seeking to overturn a decision that allows the San Diego theme park to expand its orca habitat only if it stops breeding killer whales in captivity.
The lawsuit, filed in San Diego Superior Court, argues that the California Coastal Commission overstepped its authority when it imposed the breeding restriction because it does not have jurisdiction over the marine mammals, which are regulated under federal law.
The commission, which oversees development along California’s coast, only had jurisdiction to approve or reject construction projects at the park and would effectively end SeaWorld’s popular killer whale shows, the complaint said.
“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,” SeaWorld Entertainment Inc attorneys said.
During a contentious seven-hour hearing in October, the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to give SeaWorld permission to double the size of its orca pools so long as the park ends its captive breeding program and does not transfer any of its marine mammals to other facilities.
Critics who attended the hearing questioned SeaWorld’s treatment of animals in captivity and demanded the park’s population of 11 orcas be released into the wild.
“The Coastal Commission process became unhinged,” the complaint states. “Animal rights activists appeared at the Coastal Commission hearing and vilified SeaWorld in their ‘testimony,’” the lawsuit contends.
Officials at the commission did not immediately return calls for comment about the lawsuit.
Eight of SeaWorld’s 11 orcas are the result of captive breeding, the lawsuit said.
“SeaWorld has not collected an orca from the wild in more than 35 years and has committed to not doing so in the future,” attorneys said.
The complaint asks the Superior Court judge to either order the the restrictions be removed or order a new hearing of the development proposal, called “Blue World,” without the restrictions on breeding and transfer, and for the cost of SeaWorld’s attorney fees.
Editing by Victoria Cavaliere, Robert Birsel