Judge allows SeaWorld shareholder lawsuit to proceed

October 11, 2016

ORLANDO, Fla. – A group of investors who claim SeaWorld executives misled them about the effect the documentary “Blackfish” was having on theme park attendance will be allowed to continue their revised lawsuit against the company, a federal judge has ruled.

“The Court tentatively finds Plaintiffs have sufficiently pleaded the element of falsity based upon allegations made by confidential witnesses, allegations regarding negative publicity targeting SeaWorld Entertainment, and attendance declines at SeaWorld Entertainment parks,” wrote U.S. District Judge Michael M. Anello.

SeaWorld attorneys attempted to get lawsuit thrown out, arguing that the investors had failed to present adequate evidence suggesting the company might have misled shareholders.  Following a court hearing last month,  the judge denied SeaWorld’s motion to dismiss the case, court records show.

“Plaintiffs’ allegations cannot be reconciled with various statements by Defendants that ‘Blackfish has had no attendance impact,’ and that SeaWorld Entertainment ‘can attribute no attendance impact at all to the movie’,” Anello said of the amended lawsuit.

In April, the judge dismissed the investors’ original lawsuit against SeaWorld Entertainment Inc.  According to the judge, that original complaint did not sufficiently show that theme park attendance was harmed by ‘Blackfish’, a 2013 documentary that criticized the practice of keeping killer whales in captivity.

However, the judge allowed the shareholders to amend the lawsuit and address its legal deficiencies.

In their amended complaint, the investors cited SeaWorld’s recent decision to end its killer whale breeding program as further evidence that the 2013 documentary had changed the marine park’s core business.

“The announcement was a tacit acknowledgement that SeaWorld could no longer afford to deny the profound impact ‘Blackfish’ has had on its business or continue to blatantly ignore the data showing a clear shift in public sentiment regarding its killer whale program,” the amended complaint stated.

The investors, which include the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System and a teacher’s pension fund based in Denmark, presented additional data compiled by the Themed Entertainment Association, a nonprofit amusement industry organization that provides unofficial attendance figures for many theme parks.

“Historical attendance figures demonstrate that attendance at SeaWorld-branded parks, Disney parks, and Universal parks in the Florida and California areas ordinarily rise and fall together,” the complaint states.

In 2014, after “Blackfish” was released, SeaWorld Orlando suffered an 8 percent decline in attendance and SeaWorld San Diego lost 12 percent of visitors, while Disney and Universal parks saw comparable or increased attendance, according to the lawsuit.

At the time, SeaWorld executives blamed the attendance problems on bad weather, the timing of holidays, and ticket price increases, the complaint states. “Historical attendance figures demonstrate that the dramatic attendance declines SeaWorld-branded parks saw in 2013 and 2014 had to be the result of ‘Blackfish’ and not the other generic excuses SeaWorld offered,” according to the complaint.

SeaWorld has previously claimed in court filings its fluctuating attendance trends did not correlate with the airing of “Blackfish.”

The company also suggested SeaWorld-branded marine parks, which were the subject of the documentary, outperformed their other amusement properties during that period.

“Although ‘Blackfish’ premiered on CNN early in the fourth quarter of 2013 (and was purportedly viewed by millions), it was this very quarter that the SeaWorld-named parks had record setting attendance,” SeaWorld attorneys wrote in their motion to dismiss the original lawsuit.

The following quarter, SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. reported a 13 percent drop in attendance companywide, which the company blamed on several factors except “Blackfish.”

“Indeed, that attendance declines at SeaWorld were attributable to bad weather during certain peak times, the timing of the holidays and SeaWorld’s intentional pricing strategies, which decreased attendance while increasing revenue, is a far more compelling and cogent inference than fraud,” according to SeaWorld’s attorneys.

On Aug. 13, 2014, SeaWorld officials announced another 4.3 percent decline in attendance. In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, SeaWorld acknowledged for the first time that attendance “was impacted by demand pressures related to recent media attention surrounding proposed legislation in the state of California.”

The proposed California law would have banned the display of captive killer whales for entertainment purposes. The bill’s sponsor, California Assemblyman Richard Bloom, said the proposed law was partially inspired by “Blackfish.”

That same day, SeaWorld’s stock price plunged 33 percent.

“The company had finally admitted that ‘Blackfish’ was hurting attendance at SeaWorld parks,” the investors wrote in their original lawsuit.

SeaWorld insisted the SEC disclosure was not about “Blackfish.”

“Notably, this same disclosure also included guidance that SeaWorld had significantly lowered its full year revenue numbers, a more plausible cause for the subsequent stock price drop,” wrote SeaWorld’s lawyers.

In their amended complaint, the investors suggested SeaWorld may have been worried about the impact of “Blackfish” as early as Thanksgiving 2013.  That’s when People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims their organization was infiltrated by SeaWorld employees posing as animal rights activists.

SeaWorld officials later acknowledged its employees had spied on the organization.  It has since stopped the practice, according to SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby.

“SeaWorld’s chosen strategy was to ignore ‘Blackfish’ and deny its credibility – both to the public and investors,” the new complaint states.

SeaWorld attorneys must file a formal response to the shareholders’ lawsuit by October 28, the judge ordered.

Source: Click Orlando.com

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Man finds dead orca at Rarangi beach in Marlborough

October 10, 2016

A man walking his dog has found a dead orca calf on a Marlborough beach.

Linus Maxwell was walking his dog on the stretch of beach next to the Wairau Bar when he discovered the carcass about 3pm on Sunday.

Maxwell noticed Spud, his 18-month-old border terrier, acting strangely before he noticed the animal on the shore.

“My dog was way ahead of me and I could see something at the water’s edge,” he said.

“He was acting really weird, darting back and forward so I thought it would be an animal.

“At first I thought it was a seal. It was a complete surprise.”

The animal’s distinctive colour scheme was instantly identifiable, although the white skin had started to turn yellow, Maxwell said.

“The skin was peeling off the orca a little bit like it was sunburnt,” he said.

The dead calf was around 2.2 metres in length. Maxwell estimated it had only been dead for “two to three days”.

“Even for a calf it was quite big,” he said.

“I didn’t know what to do. I was wondering whether to bury it.”

The 58-year-old contacted the Department of Conservation but said there was nothing he could do to help the animal.

“It’s sad,” he said. “It means there is one less out there swimming around. Especially being a calf.”

Maxwell, of Blenheim, said he did not touch the animal and presumed the incoming tide would move the body.

The orca did not appear to have any physical damage or scars to explain the cause of death, Maxwell said.

“It was a unique find,” he said. “If it was still alive I would have acted differently.

“But it was long dead.”

Maxwell captured a video of the orca and uploaded it to his Facebook page.

Source: www.stuff.co.nz

These eight baby killer whales are beating the odds

October 9, 2016

J50, nicknamed Scarlett, seen with the J16 family, is one of 8 orcas born in 2015 that is still alive, researchers say.

Whale watchers say eight orcas born in the past several months appear to be thriving, bolstering the endangered southern resident population that frequents Puget Sound.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association, an industry group, said Monday, Oct. 3, that the so-called “Class of 2015” is all alive and well — good news for a population that has averaged about three new babies a year since 1976.

▪ J50, nicknamed Scarlett, was first seen on Dec. 30, 2014;

▪ J51, nicknamed Nova, was seen on Feb. 15, 2015;

▪ L121, nicknamed Windsong, was seen mid-February 2015;

▪ J52, nicknamed Sonic, was seen March 30, 2015;

▪ L122, nicknamed Magic, was seen Sept. 4 or 5, 2015;

▪ J53, nicknamed Kiki (short for Kikisoblu), was seen on Oct. 24, 2015;

▪ L123, nicknamed Lazuli, was seen early November 2015;

▪ J54, nicknamed Dipper, was seen Dec. 1, 2015.

Another calf, J55, was spotted on Jan. 18 but was presumed dead because it never has been seen again.

The update on the orca calves came the same week that NOAA Fisheries said the work of one of its scientists may have led to the death of an orca in the local pods.

A whale found dead off Vancouver Island in March was likely the victim of a fatal infection after a scientist failed to adequately sterilize a research tag that was shot into its body.

The tags contain satellite-linked transmitters that allow tracking of where the whales go in winter when they leave Puget Sound, in an effort to aid their recovery.

Natural forces also threaten the southern resident population.

“Every time we had a baby born to this population last year, people got giddy,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the PWWA. “And awesome as the news always was, I guess we sometimes had to be a buzzkill. We had to remind everyone that wild orcas have a 50 percent mortality rate out there, that half of these babies don’t make it through their first year. It’s a coin flip, we said.

“Well, now we can breathe a little easier.”

There are only 82 whales in the J, K and L pods today. According to NOAA Fisheries, all killer whale populations are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but only the southern resident population and a transient population have been listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Orca Network, a nonprofit agency based on Whidbey Island, reports that as of Sept. 12, the spike in births has left the J pod with 28 members, the K pod with 19 and the L pod with 35.

These pods consist of approximately seven post-reproductive females (over 42 years old), 28 adult females (10 to 42 years old), 21 mature or adolescent males (over 10 years old), eight juvenile females (under 10 years old), 16 juvenile males (under 10 years old) and two juveniles of unknown genders.

Killer whales spotted in Cornish waters as part of conservation project

October 6, 2016

killerwhales

Killer whales have been spotted in Cornish waters and are some of more than 2,500 different whales, dolphins and porpoises seen around the coast in just nine days.

Overall, a record 14 different species of whales and dolphins were spotted from ferries and cruise ships. A total of 2,526 individual whales, dolphins and porpoises were sighted as part of the ORCA OceanWatch, a nine-day period of recording marine wildlife from July 23 to July 31 this year.

The project, organised by UK-based whale and dolphin charity ORCA, is a conservation initiative involving seafarers in the collection of research data on whales, dolphins and porpoises that they encounter at sea. Experts say their efforts are playing an increasingly important role in raising awareness about the diversity of wildlife that can be seen in UK and European waters.

Bridge crews and ORCA volunteer marine mammal surveyors collected information on marine mammals in local waters while sailing offshore during a concentrated period of time. The findings have provided the conservation charity with a “comprehensive snapshot” of whales, dolphins and porpoises in UK and European waters.

Among the different species spotted were blue whales, pilot whales, common dolphins, Sowerby’s beaked whales and harbour porpoises. The second annual ORCA OceanWatch involved 13 commercial ferry, cruise and shipping companies including Brittany Ferries, Isles of Scilly Travel, Red Funnel, Saga, Swan Hellenic and WightLink.

Sally Hamilton, director of ORCA, said: “OceanWatch 2016 was a great success, with more vessels and partners involved than last year, building an even better picture of marine life in our oceans. Fourteen species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans, were sighted in six European sea regions, which is an outstanding result.

“Having the support of a variety of different ferry and cruise ship companies is vital so we can get an accurate snapshot of marine wildlife in our oceans as possible.”

Source: Cornwallive.com

Satellite tag infection killed orca

October 5, 2016

SEATTLE – A male orca died due to an infection caused by satellite tagging, NOAA announced Wednesday.

L-95 was found dead about a month after NOAA scientists tagged the Southern Resident orca in February. Pieces of the hardware were found in the orca’s tissue. A necropsy, recently finalized, revealed that the injury caused a lethal infection leading to the whale’s death.

NOAA officials believe human error may have contributed to the fungal infection. During the tagging process the tag fell into the water. Before it was attached to L-95 is wasn’t cleaned per NOAA protocol, which requires the tag to be cleaned with alcohol and bleach – it was only cleaned with alcohol. The tag was also attached near very important blood vessels, which could have allowed the infection to enter the ocra’s bloodstream quickly.

The research began in an effort to understand where the whales traveled during the winter when they leave Puget Sound in hopes of supporting the endangered species.

Eight whales have been tagged since the research began in 2012. So far, none but L-95 have been confirmed dead due to the process. However, critics have vocalized concern that it would eventually happen.

“The NOAA/NMFS tagging program is certainly injuring and disfiguring these Endangered icons of the Pacific Northwest, and it is my subjective opinion that it is adversely altering their behavior toward benign vessel interactions to approach them for photo-identification,” wrote Center for Whale Research Senior Scientist Ken Balcomb soon after L-95 was found dead. “I discussed these shortcomings with Dr.’s Mike Ford and Brad Hanson several years ago and was told the sat tagging program would proceed in spite of my concerns; and, I was instructed to simply document tag healing and report any issues to them, which I have done. I do not know if these problems have been reported up the chain of command to the NOAA/NMFS Permit Office, but the feedback I have been receiving is that the hardware issues of yesteryear have been “fixed”.

Balcomb said for the last two years he has been talking with government officials about barbs remaining in orcas after tags have fallen off. He said he has seen infected flesh around the barbs on orcas and calls the practice “barbaric.”

Balcomb also raised concerns about the purpose of tagging the animals. He said the research of where the orcas are traveling isn’t needed because it has been documented for years. Balcomb said resources need to be reallocated to provide more food for the animals, such as removing damns and culverts.

“I was showing the researchers and the permit office the photographs of hardware left in whales, the infections that festered, the injuries that were not minor, the potential invasive agents that could get in there through a wound. It was like, this is unthinkable really. You wouldn’t do this to your kids,” Balcomb said Wednesday. “It doesn’t make any sense to me to be stuck on more and more study, research, and statistical mumbo-jumbo when we know that they’re predators, they need food and we know what food they need. All we need to do is provide it.”

NOAA stopped tagging orcas after L-95’s carcass washed ashore. They will not continue with the research in the near future.

None of the Southern Resident orcas tagged by NOAA are currently wearing the sattelite tags, and none are known to have any hardware left in their tissue.

Video: Alison Morrow answers your questions on Facebook Live

Source: King5.com – Please visit them for video coverage as well as links to official reports filed on this issue.

New images show healthy, active PNW killer whale calve

October 4, 2016

SEATTLE — The future looks bright for killer whales in Washington state.

Pacific Whale Watch Association Crews are reporting that the eight Southern Resident orca calves appear to be healthy and active.

The latest images of the eight calves show improvement for the Pacific Northwest calf population.

Following the death of several whales in 2014 there was a substantial concern for extinction. In fact, the species were previously petitioned to be listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“Every time we had a baby born to this population last year, people got giddy,” remembers Michael Harris, Executive Director of PWWA, representing 38 companies operating out of 21 ports in BC and Washington. “And awesome as the news always was, I guess we sometimes had to be a buzzkill.  We had to remind everyone that wild orcas have a 50% mortality rate out there, that half of these babies don’t make it through their first year. It’s a coin flip, we said.  Well, now we can breathe a little easier. . .”

The Center for Whale Research now estimates up to nine babies could be produced by the population each year, but with a high rate of neonatal and prenatal mortality the annual average has been three.

For more information on how to get involved with helping whale research click here.

Source: King5.com

SeaWorld’s CEO speaks to the future of the parks and Shamu

October 3, 2016

Blackfish, the documentary released in 2013, was highly critical of keeping whales in captivity. It generated plenty of attention about the plight of orcas, especially those under the care of the SeaWorld parks. Backlash from the film combined with other factors caused the marine life theme parks to take on water. Attendance and revenues plunged, while PR headaches rose.

In April 2015, SeaWorld brought in a new captain, Joel K. Manby, to right its listing ship. Prior to becoming president and CEO, he led the theme park and entertainment company, Herschend Enterprises. Among the parks under Manby’s guidance were Dollywood in Tennessee and Wild Adventures in Georgia.

After trying unsuccessfully to wage a proactive PR campaign and maintain the status quo, Manby and his SeaWorld team decided to halt their orca-breeding program and make changes to the whale stadium shows, moving from an entertainment focus to an educational one. The struggling company made the about-face announcement in March 2016.

USA TODAY spoke with the CEO about the chain’s new direction and how it is influencing the new attractions and shows coming to SeaWorld parks in 2017. We also discussed the difficulties that led to the sea changes at the company.

USA TODAY: Talk about the circumstances you faced when you arrived at SeaWorld. How did you arrive at the decision to halt the breeding of orcas?

JOEL MANBY: It was the ultimate paradox. We built our brand around Shamu, yet it became the biggest reason people weren’t coming to SeaWorld anymore. When I first came to the company, I though getting the truth out about how well we really care for animals would do the trick. But the idea of having orcas under human care was not a positive thing. We looked at the data and considered whether we would continue to fight the trend or not. It felt like we had to make the decision we did. It was huge – the single hardest business decision I’ve been involved in.

USA TODAY: Had SeaWorld spoken with or worked with The Humane Society prior to the announcement of your new partnership?

JOEL MANBY: We had never spoken with them. We were adversaries. We were monologuing at each other. I thought, let’s dialogue and see where we have common ground. We have partnered on issues such as shark finning, the practice of whale hunting, and Canadian seal hunting. We are going to be coming out against the Taiji dolphin hunt [in Japan] soon as well.

Any time people in leadership make a bold move, they are going to get arrows in their backs. Partnering was a risk for both of us. We don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on protecting animals in their habitats.

USA TODAY: What impact has the announcement about SeaWorld’s orcas had on attendance and revenue?

JOEL MANBY: So far, so good. We’d like more, faster. We think brand issues are abating. Our partners are coming back. We all feel a bit more pep in our step.

We think [the announcement] makes it possible for people to listen to SeaWorld again and see us as a good organization doing the right thing for animals – not a bad organization doing the wrong thing. We are pleased with the impact. (Internal research shows) our favorability ratings are eight-to-one more positive than before the announcement. Our intent-to-visit ratings are five-to-one more positive.

Attendance is a lagging factor. We’re seeing improved trends in California. There’s a chance we will be flat or slightly down [in 2016] with no new product. Next year and in 2018, we have very strong product offerings, and we fully anticipate that we’ll be up in California by next April for the first time in four years. In Texas, we should also be up in attendance and revenue for the first time in four years. In Florida, we will not be up. But it’s more of a Florida issue that is affecting all of the state’s theme parks. We hope that will stabilize.

USA TODAY: Wall Street has not been kind to the company’s stock (SEAS was trading at 13.54 on Friday, with a 52-week low of 12.12). What will it take to turn investors around?

JOEL MANBY: We haven’t proven that we’ve hit bottom yet. If we back out international issues [that are affecting attendance and revenue in SeaWorld Orlandoand other major Florida theme parks] we would be up. As soon as we show the Street that we’ve hit bottom and we are starting to grow, I think you’ll see our stock do well.

USA TODAY: Instead of using live animals, might you turn to more media-based attractions like ones at the Disney and Universal parks? For example, Universal can’t bring the actual stars of the Harry Potter films to its parks, but it can provide virtual Potter experiences.

JOEL MANBY: We wouldn’t build attractions to the scale of Harry Potter or Spider-Man. They cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But we can do similar attractions that we can afford and do really well.

USA TODAY: Disney and Universal use popular movies and characters at their parks. You have Sesame Street characters. What about bringing in more intellectual properties to SeaWorld?

JOEL MANBY: We are looking at opportunities. There are lots of possibilities with media players who are in the animal care-focused area. They would be naturals for us.

USA TODAY: You’ve announced the changes you will be making with your orcas. What about SeaWorld’s dolphins, sea lions and other animals?

JOEL MANBY: We’re going to look at [how we might change our policies about using other animals] once we learn from the orca encounter. I’d hate to commit one way or the other. We need to make sure that guests appreciate what we do. In my mind, we would look to do that if we can pull this off in a successful manner with the orcas.

USA TODAY: Was there ever a thought about making a more radical shift in direction at the SeaWorld parks?

JOEL MANBY: The radical shift is that in five-plus years, we don’t want to be seen as an animal entertainment company. We want to be known as an entertaining place that has a purpose and vision to help animals in the wild. How we execute that over time will be different than the SeaWorld of the past. I know that mission and vision is compelling to guests.

Source: www.USA Today.com

Feds may change opinion on whether Lolita’s tank is compliant

October 3, 2016

Lolita the orca has lived in this tank for nearly 50 years.

Thousands of them signed a petition demanding administrators at the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the part of the USDA that enforces the AWA, adhere to the Marine Mammal Commission’s  ruling that tanks holding marine mammals should be free of obstructions that infringe on the required minimum space.

Tanya Espinosa, an APHIS public affairs officer, singled out Dr. Elizabeth Goldentyer, the director of the agency’s East region, as the person who oversees the compliance of Lolita’s tank. According to Espinosa, it is Goldentyer’s opinion that the AWA allows for obstructions.

When news of Goldentyer’s authority on the issue broke out, Broward-based animal rights advocate Russ Rector and his activist colleague Belinda Morris created a new petition, which hundreds of people have signed, urging the APHIS director to declare the nearly 50-year-old orca’s enclosure substandard.

In response to the new petition and the Marine Mammal Commission’s censure, Espinosa said that Goldentyer, along with other APHIS officials, may change her opinion on whether the concrete wall in Lolita’s tank is “detrimental” to the orca’s well-being and whether it violates all of the space requirements.

“The proposed rule explicitly did not include changes to the space requirements or the way they are calculated,” said Espinosa. “APHIS will continue to review the issue of space requirements for future action… We will then consider our next steps.”

Rector says he is stunned that APHIS officials may change their minds, especially since he has been urging them for years to do so without them appearing to budge. He credits Dr. Rebecca Lent, the director of the Marine Mammal Commission, as being the motivation for Goldentyer’s apparent mulling over whether Lolita’s tank is compliant with the spirit of the law.

Rector says, however, he is concerned that Goldentyer will ponder over the issue indefinitely and will not make a decision or will fail to take any action.

“Let’s hope they don’t baffle us with bullshit like they usually do,” he said.

New Times asked why space requirements were not brought up in the proposed rule when it is such a hot topic among activists and marine mammal experts. We will update this story if we hear back from APHIS.

UPDATE: “APHIS does not have sufficient scientific or other supporting data to support increased space requirements at this time: however, we will consider any new data provided on this issue during the comment period or later,” said Tanya Espinosa.

Source: Broward Palm Beach.com