San Diego orcas SeaWorld
The California Coastal Commission Thursday banned the breeding of the captive orcas for SeaWorld San Diego but approved the company's expansion plan. In this photo, visitors get a close-up view of an Orca killer whale during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, California on March 19, 2014. Reuters/Mike Blake

The California Coastal Commission Thursday approved the bid by SeaWorld to expand the tanks the company uses to hold killer whales in San Diego, but banned the breeding of the captive orcas that would live in them. The decision came through a vote, which followed a daylong hearing with several speakers, who spoke for and against the proposed expansion.

While the decision was lauded by animal rights activists, it would only ban the breeding of captive orcas, including through artificial insemination, in the company’s California park but not in its facilities in other states. SeaWorld also operates parks in San Antonio, Texas, and Orlando, Florida. The amendment would also ban the sale, trade or transfer of the orcas, and provided an exemption for some of the whales that were caught in the wild, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

The commission had received 200,000 emails and 50,000 letters over the issue of SeaWorld's proposed expansion and had to move the meeting to Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center from the Long Beach Hall to accommodate the 500 people who gathered for the hearing, while nearly 150 people stood outside, CNN reported.

A statement from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said, according to the AP, that the vote "ensures that no more orcas will be condemned to a nonlife of loneliness, deprivation and misery."

"SeaWorld has admitted that it intended to breed even more orcas to fill the new tanks," PETA spokesman Ben Williamson, said in a statement, according to CNN, adding: "SeaWorld is a sea circus, and the orcas are its abused elephants. PETA wants SeaWorld to stop building tanks and start emptying the ones they've got by sending the orcas to coastal sanctuaries, where they'd finally have some semblance of a natural life."

The company reportedly said it was disappointed with the conditions imposed on its “Blue World” exhibit expansion, under which it wanted to expand the pool from 5.8 million gallons to 9.6 million gallons. The expansion includes 50 feet deep orca-friendly pools set to open in 2018, which have spots where the killer whales can rub and scratch themselves. Among the restrictions placed by the commission, no new whales from the wild can be kept there, to which SeaWorld responded that it had not captured wild orcas in 30 years.

"Breeding is a natural, fundamental and important part of an animal's life and depriving a social animal of the right to reproduce is inhumane," the park said, according to the AP.

SeaWorld veterinarian Hendrik Nollens slammed the accusations that the expansion would lead to more captivity for the orcas, and called the move “outlandish.” He said at the meeting, according to the AP, "We care for these animals as if they were family. We have nothing but the whales' best interest at heart."

Nollens also denied allegations from critics of the park that the whales are tortured and suffer separation from their family. "We don't separate calves from mothers. We don't collect orcas from the wild. Whales at SeaWorld are not bored. Whales at Sea World are not stressed. Not one whale is receiving anti-depressants," he reportedly said.

While opposition for the expansion was intense, SeaWorld San Diego President Reilly told the commission, according to CNN, that the park has received 52,000 letters that support the company's plans, and has the backing of over 300 zoos and aquariums.