As controversy swirls around SeaWorld's treatment of its prized collection of orcas, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the San Diego City Council on Wednesday officially designated March as "SeaWorld San Diego Month" to honor the park's 50th anniversary March 21.
Normally, that kind of ceremonial proclamation, which praised the park for its "passionate animal rescue team," "dedicated zoological team" and "critically important research studies," doesn't stir much debate.
But in the wake of last year's film "Blackfish" — which accuses SeaWorld and other aquariums of mistreating their orcas, commonly known as "killer whales" — the mayoral proclamation drew critics from San Diego Animal Advocates and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA.
“SeaWorld is an embarrassment to this city,” said Danielle Katz, who is spearheading PETA's campaign to have the whales removed from SeaWorld and moved to proposed coastal sanctuaries.
In the meantime, Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D.-Santa Monica, has introduced a bill in Sacramento to ban the use of performing orcas in theme shows and to ban captive breeding and importation of live whales.
"There is no justification for the continued captive display of orcas for entertainment purposes," Bloom said when introducing the bill last month.
SeaWorld has passionately fought back against the complaints, saying that the producers of "Blackfish" used dishonest techniques, such as including footage of animal captures from 40 years ago that have long since been banned. The park maintains that its practices are "responsible, sustainable and reflective of the balanced values all Americans share."
But the treatment of the orcas was not even broached when Faulconer and the City Council made their proclamation.
Instead, Faulconer concentrated on the park's economic contributions to the city, noting that it draws more than 4 million visitors a year and, during peak seasons, employs up to 4,500 workers, making it one of city's largest employers after Qualcomm, Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy.
The park also pays $14 million in rent per year, which Faulconer noted "helps pave roads and puts police and firefighters on the streets."
Councilmember Lori Zapf praised the park for its conservation efforts, noting that she had participated in a SeaWorld rescue project for sea birds.
"I'm a big proponent of animal conservation and animal welfare," she said. "I'm excited to see how SeaWorld can evolve and improve over the years and what steps can be made for the research and welfare of all marine mammals."
SeaWorld's critics also brought up economics during their testimony before the council, suggesting that attendance at the park would drop if it does not change its policies on the orcas.
But financial reports released by the park's parent company in Orlando, Fla., show that its nationwide revenues — generated by 11 parks, including three with orca shows — rose 3 percent last year to a record $1.4 billion.
Attendance dropped by 4.1 percent to 24.4 million, but the company blamed that on an increase in ticket prices as well as bad weather at some of the parks' key locations last year.
The company insisted that "Blackfish" has so far had no impact on attendance.