The decision by SeaWorld to end its nationwide captive orca attractions and breeding programs last March has been given a legislative stamp of approval by California lawmakers.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill on Sept. 13 making California the first state to ban the breeding of orcas and their use in entertainment. The legislation, titled The California Orca Protection Act, will go into effect in 2017, with offenders facing fines up to $100,000. Only educational institutions focused on research and rehabilitation of marine mammals will be allowed an exception under the law.

“Very pleased to announce that my law protecting #orca from captive breeding in California was signed by @JerryBrownGov today,” Democrat Assemblyman Richard Bloom tweeted Tuesday.

While California's ban is another huge step forward for orcas — in particular its potential to change deplorable conditions in other states — marine parks are not planning to close up shop. For example, instead of theatrical shows, SeaWorld says it will now focus on "educational" programs and rescue and rehabilitation. In response to the bill's passage, Sea World also made clear that it's legally allowed to rescue whales from the wild and, under federal review for certain instances, possibly never return them.

"The bill does allow for SeaWorld to rescue and rehabilitate stranded orcas, with the goal of returning them to the wild, as is the case with all animals we rescue," the company said on its website. "And, if the federal government determines that the orca is not releasable, that animal could stay in SeaWorld’s care."

Regardless of SeaWorld's rose-colored outlook for its remaining 24 orcas in captivity, animal rights groups were quick to heap praise on California for kicking off what they hope will be a nationwide domino effect.

“California can serve as a model for other states, including Florida and Texas where other orcas are displayed, to end the confinement in concrete boxes of these magnificent top ocean predators,” Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute said in a statement.

While also praising the ban, PETA urged the public to continue avoiding marine parks and supporting efforts to move captive marine mammals to seaside sanctuaries.

“As PETA celebrates this historic move, we urge people everywhere to think of this as a first step and help protect orcas by steering clear of ‘abusement’ parks like SeaWorld until all the animals held in captivity are moved to seaside sanctuaries,” said Tracy Reiman, executive vice president of PETA.

Could a seaside sanctuary possibly be the next step for captive orcas? While SeaWorld remains adamant that none of its orcas will ever leave their concrete tanks, public pressure could one day convince them otherwise. For those currently seeking to build seaside pens, the recent California legislation is extremely friendly to their efforts.

“An important feature of the bill is that it does permit the transport of orcas to other facilities in North America,” said Dr. Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project. “This will facilitate ongoing efforts to develop seaside sanctuaries for these animals as an alternative to living in tanks.”

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

California law bans use of orcas for breeding, entertainment
Gov. Jerry Brown signs legislation effectively banning marine park shows and future breeding initiatives.