With attendance numbers sinking at its theme parks earlier this year, SeaWorld is fighting an economic threat on the political front, as well as the public relations side.
State lawmakers in Sacramento have become the targets of form letters from SeaWorld patrons and some San Diego businesses, all part of a campaign opposing a measure to ban killer whale shows a phase orcas out of theme parks.
The measure in dispute – AB 2140 – was introduced following angry reaction to “Blackfish,” a documentary suggesting mistreatment of the park’s whales.
The Orca Welfare Safety Act would allow orcas to stay at SeaWorld, but only for research and rehabilitation. It would also prevent captive breeding, prevent the whales from being imported and exported in the state and limit human interaction with the animals.
SeaWorld has helped float the tourism economy in San Diego and the ten other cities it has parks, but it’s now in choppy waters, aggressively defending its program of killer whale performances.
"It fuels the work we can do in the face of unusual mortality events -- California sea lions when they're stranded. It fuels our a capacity to do research that ultimately helps killer whales, like off the coast of Puget Sound right now that are endangered and facing threats of their own," said Christopher Dold, vice president of veterinary services.
A closed-door informational meeting was held in the state capitol Wednesday. There, lawmakers heard from SeaWorld’s top veterinarian and a prominent lobbyist.
From January through March this year, attendance at SeaWorld Entertainment’s parks fell 13 percent, compared to the same three months in 2013.
Now, the company is asking annual pass-holders to forward letters opposing AB 2140 to lawmakers.
The Regional Chamber of Commerce is doing the same with its thousands of member firms.
Out-of-town visitors who don’t support SeaWorld told NBC 7 they doubt the ban against SeaWorld will pass.
“[The shows] should be banned for sure, but I don't think the politicians will support it because there's huge money and huge profits,” said Gizam Sega from Istanbul, Turkey. “Especially when you google 'San Diego' and the first thing you come up with is 'SeaWorld.’"
It would seem hard to quantify how many people “Blackfish” has turned against SeaWorld.
A spokesperson declined to comment on the attendance hit and the company’s campaign in Sacramento, assisted by a former British Petroleum lobbyist.
Lawmakers will take up AB 2140 on Tuesday.