SeaWorld Orlando’s parent company and its former CEO have agreed to pay more than $5 million to settle allegations that it misled investors about the impact the “Blackfish” documentary had on its business.
The 2013 film criticized the parks’ use of captive orcas, documenting how one, Tilikum, had been involved in the deaths of three people — including the 2010 death SeaWorld Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was dragged underwater by Tilikum during a Dine with Shamu show.
SeaWorld has disputed the accuracy of parts of the documentary. A complaint from U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged that between December 2013 and August 2014, the company and former CEO James Atchison “made untrue and misleading statements or omissions” about the impact “Blackfish” was having on SeaWorld’s reputation and business in government filings, earnings releases and press statements.
In August 2014, the company said for the first time that the negative publicity generated by the film was a factor in its declining attendance — an admission which sent its shares plunging by 33 percent that same day.
“This case underscores the need for a company to provide investors with timely and accurate information that has an adverse impact on its business,” Steve Peikin, co-director of the SEC Enforcement Division, said in a news release. “SeaWorld described its reputation as one of its ‘most important assets,’ but it failed to evaluate and disclose the adverse impact Blackfish had on its business in a timely manner.”
SeaWorld will pay a $4 million penalty while Atchison will be fined $1 million. The company’s former vice president of communications, Fredrick Jacobs, will pay $100,000 after assisting the SEC with its investigation.
The settlement terms, which still require court approval, include no admission or denial of the allegations by SeaWorld.
“The company is pleased to have resolved this matter and to continue to focus on delivering superior guest experiences, world-class animal care, and rescuing animals in need,” SeaWorld said in a statement.
In 2012, the year before “Blackfish” was released, an estimated 5.3 million guests visited. SeaWorld Orlando. By 2017, attendance had dropped to 3.9 million.
Recent financial reports, however, have indicated the company may be making a comeback. Attendance is up 8 percent across all SeaWorld-owned parks through the first half of 2018.