SeaWorld says it will expand killer whale environments; ‘Blackfish’ film has hurt business

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NEW YORK, N.Y. – Stung by criticism of its treatment of killer whales, SeaWorld said Friday that it will build new, larger environments at its theme parks and will fund additional research on the animals along with programs to protect ocean health and whales in the wild.

The company’s shares, which are trading near their lowest point since the company listed its stock on public markets last year, rose slightly on the news. But it remains to be seen if the renovations will fully address concerns about keeping large marine mammals in captivity.

The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” suggested that captivity and SeaWorld’s treatment of the whales provokes violent behaviour, which in turn has led to the death of trainers. Since the release of the movie, a series of entertainers have pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks. SeaWorld also recently said its longtime corporate partnership with Southwest Airlines is ending, and on Wednesday the company reported disappointing second-quarter financial results because of the backlash.

SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. says it will build a tank with 10 million gallons of water at its San Diego park, almost twice the size of the current tank.

The new environment will be called the Blue World Project, and SeaWorld said it will include features that will be more stimulating for the whales. Those include a “fast water current” that will allow the whales to swim against moving water. The facility will open to the public in 2018, and after that, SeaWorld said, it will make similar changes at its Orlando, Florida, and San Antonio locations.

The company said the cost of the project will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars but would not specify the exact budget.

The company is also pledging $10 million in matching funds to support research focused on threats to killer whales, or orcas, in the wild. It also announced a multimillion-dollar partnership focused on ocean health.

On Wednesday SeaWorld reported net income and revenue that fell short of Wall Street expectations and the company withdrew its financial outlook for the year. Its revenue in the second quarter was about $40 million less than analysts had expected, and the company said “Blackfish” hurt attendance.

“Blackfish” explores the death of veteran SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was pulled off a platform and killed by a whale named Tilikum in 2010. The film argues that the whales become more aggressive toward humans and each other when they are kept in captivity.

Several entertainers, including country singers Trisha Yearwood and Willie Nelson and rock band Barenaked Ladies, have pulled out of planned performances at SeaWorld parks since the film’s release. In July, Southwest Airlines and SeaWorld said they were ending a 25-year marketing partnership at the end of this year. SeaWorld said the decision was mutual, and said it wants to concentrate on growing markets in Latin America and Asia.

SeaWorld stock has fallen 37 per cent in 2014 and finished at $18 on Thursday. That is its lowest closing price since the company went public in April 2013. The shares gained 9 cents to $18.09 in midday trading.

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