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SeaWorld to phase out killer whale shows in 2016

In this file photo, killer whales perform in Shamu Stadium at the SeaWorld Orlando theme park in Florida. SeaWorld officials said Monday, November 9, 2015, that the San Diego park would phase out its theatrical killer whale show in 2016 and introduce a new exhibit in 2017 focused more on the whales' natural setting.
In this file photo, killer whales perform in Shamu Stadium at the SeaWorld Orlando theme park in Florida. SeaWorld officials said Monday, November 9, 2015, that the San Diego park would phase out its theatrical killer whale show in 2016 and introduce a new exhibit in 2017 focused more on the whales' natural setting.
Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

SeaWorld will phase out its killer whale shows in 2016 and replace them with a non-theatrical exhibit beginning in 2017, company officials said Monday.

The marine park has been struggling to overcome bad publicity following the release of the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," which made the case that the sea-park industry was mistreating the whales.

The decision to phase out the One Ocean show was based on customer feedback at the San Diego park, according to Joel Manby, president and CEO of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.

"We are listening to our guests. We're evolving as a company," Manby told a group of investors and analysts on Monday.

In 2017, the park plans to launch an orca experience that will be "focused more on the natural setting, natural environment and also the natural behaviors of the whale. And it'll have a strong conservation message," Manby said.

SeaWorld challenged a California Coastal Commission ruling that banned captive breeding of orcas.

"When the Coastal Commission decision came, we felt like we had to fight that based on a precedent — it's just a bad precedent not only for us but for all zoos and aquariums — and that we felt it was outside their jurisdiction," Manby said.

Manby cited the company's long history of animal rescues — 27,000 as of 2015, he said — in laying out a case for SeaWorld's mission of conservation. He said the company will seek to inspire guests to take action through community service events and attractions with a message.

A bill to phase out public displays of captive killer whales was announced last week by California Rep. Adam Schiff. In a statement, Schiff praised SeaWorld's decision but said it didn't go far enough.

"I would urge the company to curtail the breeding of their orcas and partner in the creation of ocean sanctuaries. The fact still remains that as long as SeaWorld holds orcas in captivity, the physical and psychological problems associated with their captivity will persist," Schiff said.

PETA Foundation's director of animal law Jared Goodman had even stronger words in response to SeaWorld's announcement:

"This move is like no longer whipping lions in a circus act but keeping them locked inside cages for life or no longer beating dogs but never letting them out of crates," Goodman said in a prepared statement.

SeaWorld's stock was up on news of the park planning to end its killer whale shows.

The company also announced a new partnership with the Evans Hotels group as it explores the potential development of a resort on its San Diego property.

This story has been updated.