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Sea World celebrates 50 years amid animal care concerns

An orca. Concerns about animal welfare haven't lowered the bottom line at SeaWorld.

As SeaWorld celebrates its 50th anniversary today, concerns from animal rights activists about the care of marine animals have not appeared to hurt the company’s bottom line.

2013 was a good year for shareholders of SeaWorld Entertainment, which manages three SeaWorld Parks in the U.S. The company offered its initial public stock last April, and reported total 2013 revenues of $1.4 billion.  That’s a three percent increase over the prior year. While revenue is expected to grow again in 2014, it’s largely because of rising admission prices -- total park attendance at SeaWorld parks fell last year.

Blackfish raised concerns about animal care

While shareholders are likely satisfied with the way SeaWorld parks are run from a financial perspective, activists are calling for people to boycott the parks and engage in forcing changes to how animals are cared for.  This is partially a response to the 2013 documentary Blackfish. The film caused a stir when it criticized SeaWorld San Diego's orca whale shows.

Scott Sherman is a San Diego city council member who sees SeaWorld and its orca whales as icons.

“Even Southwest Airlines has planes painted like Shamu if that tells you, heh, how much people look forward to coming to SeaWorld when they come to San Diego," Sherman says.

The park pays San Diego about $14 million a year in rent, and employs thousands of  local workers. So the city's still backing SeaWorld, despite Blackfish. “If you look at the numbers,” Sherman says, “SeaWorld's tourism is up over the last quarter here, and things look like they're doing pretty well.”

Christie Marchese reminds us the film only hit TV screens in October. Her company Picture Motion looks at the impact of documentary films:

“I think it's still a bit early to measure the full impact of this film,” she says of Blackfish. If we measure the success of the film's message by SeaWorld ticket sales, she says, “It's asking people to stop planning expensive trips. And so I think it's going to take some time before we see a slow decrease in people going to SeaWorld.” - Christie Marchese, Picture Motion

And tickets sales won't be SeaWorld's only concern: legislators in New York and California have recently proposed bans on the captivity of orca whales.

Economic impact of marine parks

So let's imagine an extreme scenario.  What would happen if SeaWorld closed all of its parks in the U.S., due to fallout of a potential orca whale ban nationwide?

It’s difficult to estimate the total economic impact, but we can guess based on some average numbers provided by the industry and SeaWorld.

SeaWorld is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), an international industry trade group of zoos and aquariums which manage care for about 800,000 animals. AZA claims members “generate more than $16 billion in annual economic activity and supporting more than 142,000 jobs.”

That works out to be about $20,000 of generated cash flow activity for every animal in marine parks, globally – activity which includes all sorts of transactions related to the care and management of the animals and their man-made shelters. It’s important to note that this average is very rough because it assumed similarity between the value of different animals in marine parks and zoos.

Since SeaWorld charges admission that is not based on animal type, we can only guess which animals bring in the most revenue for SeaWorld. The company manages 67,000 different creatures, including 7,000 marine and terrestrial animals, and 60,000 fish.

At $20,000 a head, the best guess is that SeaWorld generates about $1.3 billion of economic activity in the United States annually, which pretty closely matches SWE’s reported 2013 revenue of $1.4 billion.

The flagship SeaWorld, according to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, has employed 93,000 people in the county over an unknown period of years. Based on very rough assumptions, that’s about 300,000 jobs generated across the United States from the currently-existing three SeaWorlds (again, over an unknown period of years). 

Based on the average numbers, SeaWorld might find its best argument for defending itself from pressure in how many people it employs, rather than what it pays in taxes or other generated revenue. But those people might also agree with animal rights activists at the end of the day. The final impact of Blackfish is far from over. 

About the author

Audrey Quinn is a reporter in New York City.

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