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SeaWorld announces it has stopped breeding orcas

SeaWorld Entertainment is to end the breeding of orcas - or killer whales - following continued criticism from animal rights activists.

Its current family of orcas will be the last generation of orcas at SeaWorld, it announced Thursday, and will instead offer "new, inspiring, natural orca encounters" as part of an ongoing commitment to "education, marine science research, and rescue of marine animals."

"SeaWorld has introduced more than 400 million guests to orcas, and we are proud of our part in contributing to the human understanding of these animals," Joel Manby, president and chief executive officer of SeaWorld Entertainment, said in a statement.

"By making this the last generation of orcas in our care and reimagining how guests will encounter these beautiful animals, we are fulfilling our mission of providing visitors to our parks with experiences that matter."

The Orlando, Florida-based company also reaffirmed its commitment not to collect marine mammals from the wild and announced a partnership with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of HSUS commended the company in the SeaWorld press release for making a "game-changing commitment" and said the two organizations would be working together to achieve solutions on a wide set of animal issues.

Late last year, SeaWorld announced that its signature Shamu show in San Diego would be phased out amid criticism and the threat of legislation to ban the public orca shows. A few weeks later, SeaWorld filed a lawsuit challenging a California commission's ruling that banned the theme park from breeding captive orcas at its San Diego park.

'More humane' model

Following Thursday's announcement, Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist at the Washington D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, said that it was a "monumental and important first step forward" in achieving a more humane business model for the company.

"We thank SeaWorld's CEO, Joel Manby, for making these commitments and being responsive to the desires and views of the company's theme park visitors," she said in a statement emailed to CNBC.

"We look forward to engaging in future discussions with Manby and his team to ensure that the company continues to improve its practices and policies surrounding captive cetaceans."

—Associated Press and CNBC's Jeff Daniels contributed to this article.