SeaWorld Announces End to Orca Breeding Program

The changes will start in the San Diego park in 2017, followed by San Antonio and Orlando in 2019

SeaWorld announced Thursday it will end orca breeding at all three parks and said killer whales currently in the company's care will be the last generation of orcas at SeaWorld.

The changes will start in the San Diego park in 2017, followed by San Antonio and Orlando in 2019.

In a news release, SeaWorld announced that all orcas currently in captivity — including Tilikum, whose life was chronicled in the controversial documentary "Blackfish" — will live out their lives at the company's park habitats.

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SeaWorld San Diego's president as well as California lawmakers held a news conference Thursday to address the reasons for the shift.

Saying it was "not an easy decision," President John Reilly said the change was made in response to a growing concern of whales in captivity.

"This is about doing the best thing for our whales, our guests, our employees and SeaWorld," he said. "We love our whales."

Reilly also said the park has launched a partnership with the Humane Society of the United States in sea life conservation efforts.

"We are working toward new ways to deliver on our purpose," Reilly said.

The park's decision was met with praise.

"Today's announcement by SeaWorld that they will end their captive breeding program for orcas is a huge step in the right direction," said South Florida Veterinarian Dr. Ian Kupkee.

Visitors will still be able to see the orcas through new educational encounters and in viewing areas within their existing habitats.

SeaWorld officials said they haven't collected an orca from the wild in nearly 40 years, and that the orcas at SeaWorld were all either born there or have spent almost their entire lives there being cared for by humans.

They said the orcas wouldn't survive in the wild.

"Orcas are highly intelligent, socially complex creatures that swim between 75-100 miles per day in the wild. The family units with which they spend their entire lives, are arguably more functional than those of humans. Such conditions could never be replicated in captivity," Kupkee said.

"SeaWorld has introduced more than 400 million guests to orcas, and we are proud of our part in contributing to the human understanding of these animals," said SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby in a statement. "As society’s understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it. By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will encounter these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter."

"Public opinion has been loud and clear on this issue for several years. Theme park attendees have been voting with their feet. Investors have been voting with their wallets," Kupkee said. "SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby stated 'Society is changing.' Thank you, Mr. Manby for hearing us, and for taking this bold step towards creating a better future for this species."

The park is also pledging $50 million over the next five years to advocate for the end of commercial killing of whales and seals and to end shark finning.

Tilikum has been at SeaWorld Orlando for 23 years and has been used many times for the park's breeding program.

In 2010, he grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau after a "Dine with Shamu" show and pulled her into a pool, killing her. He was also involved in the deaths of two others.

Officials announced last Monday that Tilikum is very sick from a bacterial infection that may eventually kill him.

Stay with NBC 6 for updates.

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