DC Circuit Court Upholds Decision to Dismiss SeaWorld Permit Oversight Lawsuit
On Tuesday, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals delivered its opinion in a lawsuit brought by animal welfare groups over SeaWorld’s killer whale permits; the circuit court upheld the district court’s decision to dismiss the case.
The notice says the plaintiffs are a group of animal welfare organizations and people working with marine mammals who sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. . Through the lawsuit, the plaintiffs sought to enforce the terms of permits held by SeaWorld for the capture and display of orcas.
The notice states that the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) prohibits the capture of certain types of marine mammals, including killer whales. However, prior to 1994, the MMPA authorized the NMFS to issue special exception permits for the capture of killer whales and other marine mammals for specified purposes, such as research and public display. The notice states that the NMFS determines whether to issue the permits and under what conditions.
The circuit court notes that most permits, including SeaWorld’s permit, required facilities that publicly display marine mammals to send medical history and autopsy data to NMFS whenever an animal held under a license was dying. However, the notice explains that in 1994, Congress amended the MMPA to transfer jurisdiction for monitoring the conditions of marine mammals in captivity to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Circuit Court Says Litigation Initiated After Popular 2013 Documentary black fish which covered Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld in Orlando, held under a pre-1994 permit. When Tilikum fell ill in 2016, plaintiffs asked NMFS if Tilikum’s medical history and autopsy reports would be available upon the killer whale’s death under the conditions of SeaWorld’s permit. The notice says the NMFS did not respond to plaintiffs until two months after Tilikum’s death on January 6, 2017.
According to the notice, the NMFS responded to the complainants by explaining that it interpreted the 1994 amendments as extinguishing its authority to enforce marine mammal permits and transferring jurisdiction to APHIS. The notice states that the plaintiffs attempted to convince the NMFS that it had continuing legal authority to enforce the pre-1994 license to no avail, and so the plaintiffs brought this action arguing that the NMFS policy relies on an arbitrary and capricious interpretation of the MMPA.
In the district court, the defendants moved to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and the district court granted the motion leading to this appeal. In its opinion, the DC Circuit upheld the district court’s decision stating that the plaintiffs lacked standing because the plaintiffs failed to establish that the relief they seek would repair the harm they would have suffered.
Plaintiffs are represented by Eubanks & Associates, PLLC.