By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - California regulators on Friday recommended approval of a plan by SeaWorld San Diego to build larger tanks for its killer whales despite strong opposition from tens of thousands of people who want to see the killer whales released instead.
Experts with the California Coastal Commission issued a report in favor of allowing SeaWorld to go ahead with its so-called Blue World Project on several conditions, officials said.
Those include one provision limiting SeaWorld on how it could expand its population of 11 killer whales and requiring the theme park to protect the sea mammals from noise during construction.
SeaWorld has drawn up plans for two orca pools, one containing 5.2 million gallons (19.7 million liters) of water and another with 450,000 gallons (1.7 million liters). It would represent an increase in volume of nearly 3.8 million gallons (14.4 million liters), officials said.
The commission will vote on the project on Oct. 8, said Noaki Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the agency.
The proposal has generated so much interest the meeting will be held at the massive Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center to accommodate members of the public wanting to attend, Schwartz said.
"People have sent us tens of thousands of letters and more than 120,000 e-mails from around the world, which is unprecedented," she said.
Most emails have been in opposition to the plan, said Schwartz, who added, "there's a lot of passion on both sides."
"Please deny SeaWorld the opportunity to build a bigger prison. Help get the orcas one step closer to a world where they can really thrive -- not in tanks, but in seaside sanctuaries," stated a typical emailed petition.
SeaWorld has faced heated criticism and declining business since the 2013 documentary "Blackfish" presented a dim view of how the company treats orcas.
Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has led the charge against the project.
Even though expansion would give the orcas more room, it would fall far short of what is needed for the predators, which in the wild can dive hundreds of feet (meters), said Jared Goodman, an attorney for PETA.
"The proposed Blue World project will provide not only an expanded habitat for whales, but also new opportunities for researchers to conduct studies that will benefit killer whales and other cetaceans in the wild," Paul Ponganis, a research physiologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said in a SeaWorld statement.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)