San Diego Coastkeeper and SeaWorld: Is Something Fishy Going On?

Editors Note: A recent exchange between the OB Rag and San Diego Coastkeeper about the environmental organizations’ relationship with SeaWorld is reprinted here. The article from the OB Rag is followed by the response from Coastkeeper. We think you’ll find the exchange illuminating. 

Something smells fishy. The other day we received a press release from San Diego Coastkeeper – actually, it was a joint press release, from them and from SeaWorld – talking about how they are both “teaming up” together to “keep Mission Bay beautiful”. They’re planning a “clean the Bay day” on October 27th – and volunteers will get prizes including passes to SeaWorld.

While we applaud any organization’s efforts to clean Mission Bay – heaven knows it needs it – something just doesn’t sit well with us on this announced partnership.

Why is that? What’s wrong with a strong environmental organization with a solid reputation partnering up with a corporate entity to beautify the surrounding area?

Well, let’s face it.  SeaWorld is not just any corporate entity. Outside of the thousands of birds crapping in the water, one of the biggest polluters of Mission Bay is SeaWorld itself. Just earlier this year, SeaWorld was fined $6,000 for dumping excessive ammonia and animal waste into the Bay. (See Fox5 video here and “SeaWorld Cited for Exceeding Mission Bay Effluent Limits” in an article by Matt Potter, March 20, 2012 in the San Diego Reader.)

SeaWorld is the largest discharger of water into the Bay and has been a known polluter of the body of water, as the bay has been on California’s list of impaired water bodies for several years as it does not meet the Clean Water Act standards.

Beginning in 2004, Clean Water Act violations against SeaWorld began surfacing when several shocking complaints had been made public. A local blogger cites: “In the year 2000 SeaWorld’s water quality permit was violated eight consecutive times within a six month period. It was violated again in the year 2002.”

There were more violations:

“the California Regional Water Control Board also brought forth more shocking information. The agency states the following, “Since April 13, 2005, there have been numerous violations of effluent limitations at the facility, including three exceedances of Ammonia, six exceedances of Enterococcus, and one exceedance of Total coliform. Furthermore, there have been multiple months in which required sampling was not reported. The constituents not sampled have included pH, Total coliform, Fecal Coliform, Enterococcus, and Total Residual Chlorine.”

The City seems to be protecting SeaWorld. San Diego Park’s communications director David Koontz commented:

“Exceedences in conjunction with our water discharge permit are very infrequent and have never had a detrimental impact to the overall health of Mission Bay. We take our environmental responsibility very seriously and are proud to be excellent stewards of Mission Bay.”

Is he ignorant or ” deliberately misinforming the public” by claiming that SeaWorld’s violations have been “infrequent”? SeaWorld has been cited for pollution dozens of times within the past 12 years. It appears that Mr. Koontz’s comment directly contradicts the records in possession of the California Regional Water Control Board.

Koontz also claims that SeaWorld does not impact the health of Mission Bay.

Yet, the San Diego Pollution Program Manager, Donna Frye, differs:

“For too long, the city has failed to protect the natural resources of Mission Bay. Almost every day, one or more areas of Mission Bay is posted with signs warning of unsafe levels of bacteria. Mission Bay does not support its beneficial uses and is listed as an impaired water body due to coliform bacteria. This problem can no longer be ignored.”

The bay is also on the top ten list of California’s most polluted beaches. To say that SeaWorld has no responsibility for the pollution of Mission Bay is entirely false since SeaWorld is the largest discharger of water into the bay.”

There’s other issues of pollution that SeaWorld is directly involved in.  Did you ever wonder where on earth SeaWorld takes the waste from its large mammals? It doesn’t take the crap very far – it’s dumped right off the shore from the facility itself, and there are mountains of underwater Orca dung between the waterworld and Fiesta Island.

Then there’s the nighty fireworks that SeaWorld sets off over Mission Bay during the summer months. It has been proven that fireworks debris – the kind that falls into the water after the shows – harms wildlife.  And just exactly how many nights do the fireworks go off?

There’s all the sound and noise pollution emanating from SeaWorld daily.  The yells and screams of people on its rides certainly cannot be helpful to either SeaWorld’s own animals and the surrounding wildlife in Mission Bay. Not to mention the explosive noise from the fireworks themselves.  We’re sure the endangered birds and other animals are lulled to sleep each night from the sound of bombs going off.

This doesn’t even touch the fact that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (APHIS) to launch an investigation into a gruesome injury received by one of SeaWorld’s orcas.

Some history here. When SeaWorld went around to the different community groups and planning committees in the surrounding neighborhoods with its initial plans for its first thrill ride back in the early days of this century, many community activists believed the facility had misrepresented the negative impacts on wildlife and on their neighborhoods.  For a while, SeaWorld acted as it if owned Mission Bay and the land it sits on.  It doesn’t – you and I and other San Diego residents, own it. SeaWorld pays our City a dirt cheap amount for leasing our public lands.

Back to San Diego Coastkeeper.  I spoke with Jill Witkowski of the organization and asked her questions about why her organization is teaming up with SeaWorld, a large polluter of the Bay.

Witkowski’s basic stance in defending the arrangement was to say that Coastkeeper tries to partner with other organizations – and has a new commitment to do that with groups like SeaWorld over issues that they can agree on – cleaning up Mission Bay – which helps provide a forum to build relationships and dialog over issues that they don’t agree on.

Despite SeaWorld’s pollution records and problems, it is basically in compliance with the Clean Water Act permit, she stated, as it has paid for its violations.  As to the fireworks debris pollution, she said Coastkeeper does have disagreements with SeaWorld over the issue.

When I tried to explain the checkered history and relationships SeaWorld has with the surrounding communities, Witkowski begged off on these details. When SeaWorld reps went around to the OB Planning Board and the Peninsula Planning Committee, members of OB Grassroots Organization – for instance – felt that they had been lied to by the reps and those representing the City as well. Local activists also felt that SeaWorld had been less than forthcoming in the years where there were reports of a nearby toxic waste dump right on its boundary.  (I invited Jill Witkowski or a member of San Diego Coastkeeper to respond to this post.)

It appears that the corporate entity that owns SeaWorld is benefiting in its public PR campaign by saddling up with San Diego Coastkeeper.  SeaWorld’s reputation has been sullied of late by the reports of pollution that it caused, so it needs to make amends and look cleaner.

Hopefully, by partnering with a polluting facility like SeaWorld, Coastkeeper’s own reputation will not be sullied.

Coastkeeper responded: 

Editor:The following – by Megan Baehrens, Executive Director of San Diego Coastkeeper – is a response by their organization to our post on Tuesday questioning their “partnership” with SeaWorld in cleaning Mission Bay. It was originally posted as a comment to that article, and has not been edited.  Megan refers to two commenters, JEC and Stu, in her writing.  In his comments, JEC had raised questions about whether Sea World is a corporate donor to Coastkeeper.

By Megan Baehrens  /San Diego Coastkeeper

Hello Frank and OB Rag readers.

First of all, Frank, thank you for maintaining a level of journalism in San Diego that holds the community accountable. We indeed asked ourselves some of these same questions nearly a year ago as we weighed our options for how to work with SeaWorld—as you note, a significant presence on our waterfront. Ultimately, as Jill pointed out, we believe it’s important to build relationships and respect—all while maintaining integrity–in order to open doors to much harder (and much more important) dialogue.

We are aware of SeaWorld’s storied past and dedicated much time to understanding their practices to ensure we could be proud of this partnership. In fact, you mention some fairly old facts about SeaWorld and the health of Mission Bay. We’d be happy to meet with you or any of your readers to share what we know.

That does not change the fact that you and JEC ask very tough questions, and we like to see informed citizens doing just that. Yes, we received a $10,000 grant from SeaWorld to cover our staff’s time managing a debris cleanup project later this month. And, no, this will not impede any movement on our part to hold SeaWorld accountable for water quality issues should we not be able to sit at a table and find solutions together.

This is not a new practice in Coastkeeper’s history. For many years and currently, we’ve partnered with and accepted money from agencies like the City of San Diego and the County of San Diego while also using aggressive measures to hold them accountable for decision making and lack of response to water quality crises.

We think we balance this well, value these complicated relationships with major players in the region and look forward to sharing with you and your readers positive results we achieve with SeaWorld.

Specifically to JEC and Stu, thank you for being part of this conversation. I invite you any time to have coffee to talk about our role in this community and any concerns you have. I appreciate that you follow our work.

A lawyer and grassroots activist, I was finally convinced by Patty Jones to start the OB Rag, a blog of citizen journalists, after she got tired of listening to my rants about the news. Way back during the Dinosaurs in 1970, I founded the original Ocean Beach People’s Rag - OB’s famous underground newspaper -, and then later during the early Eighties, published The Whole Damn Pie Shop, a progressive alternative to the Reader.


  1. avatarmicaela shafer porte says

    sea world is an expensive yucky stupid commercial place… they care more about amusement rides that pack in yucky stupid people than the ocean and ocean life they were chartered to protect and care for…. sea world is a san diego joke…. like the grunion running….

    • avatarJEC says

      A bit misanthropic sounding; Seaworld, through all it’s imperfections, has inspired many a child to learn more about the oceans. Personnally I’d like to see it guided by values more like the Monterey Aquarium. But the fireworks, a ridiculous and irrating expense, needs to go.

  2. avatar says

    There has never been a credible demonstration that attendance at SeaWorld is anything more than an orca “thrill-ride” for children. This ride occurs at the expense of the orcas and other marine mammals.

    The fact that this amusement park is not only misleading the public about the nature of orcas and other dolphins and whales but is also Mission Bay’s largest polluter is very troubling. Kudos to the San Diego community if it will take on this outdated behemoth and institution on which aquariums worldwide and the dolphin and orca hunts to take wild creatures from the ocean to perform in morbid tanks. Please watch Blackfish and take away SeaWorld’s control of the message.