SeaWorld has said it will immediately stop breeding killer whales, also known as orcas, essentially phasing out the iconic animals from its theme parks in the United States after years of public pressure.

Attendance at SeaWorld, a top tourist destination, dropped after the 2013 release of a documentary "Blackfish," which was highly critical of the orca programme.

SeaWorld reported a fourth-quarter loss of $11 million in February.

The company on Thursday appeared to acknowledge that the criticism had helped drive the decision to end the breeding programme. It also announced it would stop using the orcas in theatrical shows in the parks, instead introducing "new, inspiring natural orca encounters".

"As society's understanding of orcas continues to change, SeaWorld is changing with it," said Joel Manby, president and chief executive officer of SeaWorld Entertainment.

"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."

Blackfish effect

The new shows will begin next year at the company's San Diego park, before expanding to its San Antonio park and then to an Orlando, Florida, park in 2019. Orcas have long been a centrepiece of the SeaWorld parks, with shows at the Shamu stadium in San Diego becoming the park's main draw in the 1970s. The San Diego show was the original home of Shamu, SeaWorld's first orca.

The company said it was also forming a partnership with the Humane Society to help educate guests on animal welfare and conservation issues.

"We commend the company [SeaWorld] for making this game-changing commitment," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society.

Criticism over orcas in captivity increased in 2010 after an orca named Tilikum grabbed trainer Dawn Brancheau after a show and pulled her into the pool, killing her.

The death was highlighted in "Blackfish." Tilikum, who was also involved in the deaths of two others and has been at SeaWorld Orlando for 23 years, is now sick.


READ MORE: Blackfish - Highlighting the plight of captive orcas


Last month, SeaWorld admitted that it sent workers to infiltrate the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). At the time, Manby said the employees had been sent to protect the safety of its employees and customers, but he vowed to end the practice.

PETA, which has been especially critical of SeaWorld, said the company needed to do more.

"SeaWorld must open its tanks to the oceans to allow the orcas it now holds captive to have some semblance of a life outside these prison tanks," PETA spokeswoman Colleen O'Brien said in a statement.

Last year, after reports that SeaWorld was planning to open a park in Dubai, almost 200,000 people signed a petition calling on the emirate's government to stop it from happening.

Source: Agencies