SeaWorld in San Diego can expand its facilities for the orcas it holds at the marine park, but with one condition — it can no longer breed its killer whales at the popular tourist attraction.

That decision was handed down by the California Coastal Commission, which approved SeaWorld's $100-million project to enhance and enlarge the killer whales' habitats at the park but added the stipulation banning further breeding of its captive orcas.

SeaWorld officials, explaining their opposition to such a ban, said it would mean the current group of 11 whales at the park would be the last the public would be able to see there.

"A ban on breeding would sentence these animals to a slow extinction in our care," said SeaWorld San Diego President John Reilly.

The killer whales and the shows they put on are the park's top attraction, but SeaWorld has been struggling with public criticism and falling attendance numbers since the release of the documentary film Blackfish in 2013, which turned a spotlight on the park's handling and treatment of its orcas.

SeaWorld could abandon its orca facility expansion plan, which would allow it to continue with its current breeding program but would likely put the park at risk of incurring more public criticism about the treatment of the animals.

Testimony before the Coastal Commission lasted for more than eight hours, with impassioned speakers both for and against SeaWorld's proposal.

An enlarged enclosure would mean better conditions for the animals, said SeaWorld head veterinarian Hendrik Nollen.

"We care for these animals as if they were our family," he said.

SeaWorld's project, dubbed "Blue World," would replace the current 1.7-million-gallon tank with a 5.2-million-gallon holding tank and an additional 450,000-gallon performing pool.

Experts have weighed in on the project, claiming even the new larger tank and pool would be insufficient.

Orcas in the wild swim, on average, more than 100 miles daily and routinely dive as deep as 600 feet, notes Ingrid Visser from the Orca Research Trust in New Zealand.

The proposed SeaWorld tank would have a surface area of 1.5 acres and a maximum depth of 50 feet.

"These new tanks do not meet [orcas'] basic requirements," she said. "No facility ever will."

Other animal activists echoed those thoughts.

"Captivity is still captivity no matter how gentle the jailer," said John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer who has become a critic of the California marine park.

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