By Steve Wehrly, Journal reporter
The "Free Lolita" movement has gained a foothold.
Eighteen years after Howard Garrett, Ken Balcomb, and then-Governor Mike Lowry initiated the movement to return L-pod member Lolita from the Miami Seaquarium to her native Northwest waters, the National Marine Fisheries Service accepted a petition to consider whether Lolita should be included as part of the Endangered Species Act listing of Southern Resident killer whales, now numbered at 84 - plus Lolita.
Lolita is the only survivor of 45 Southern Resident orcas held in captivity. She was captured in 1970 at about age three, along with six other Southern Resident whales and has lived her entire life in a pool at Seaquarium in Miami, Florida. Lolita has not had the companionship of another killer whale for more than 30 years, since her pool mate, Hugo, died in 1980 after repeatedly slamming his head against the side of the pool he shared with Lolita for two years.
Jared Goodman, an attorney with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which spearheaded the ESA petition, said that Lolita's continued captivity is illegal, as well as inhumane.
"The government now has to conduct a full review of its unlawful and unexplained decision to deny Lolita protection from being harmed and harassed at Miami Seaquarium." said Goodman, who noted that the review must consider why the 1995 endangered species listing of Southern Resident killer whales carved out a sole exception for Lolita, excluding her from the protections of the listing with "no rationale whatsoever."
Declared endangered by the U.S. in 2005, the Southern residents consist of three closely related clans, J, K, and L pods, which make the waterways of the San Juan Islands a seasonal home. The population, believed to have been historically in the high 100s, plummeted to 71 by 1973 following the captures for marine parks, which ended in the 1970s. It rebounded to 80 in 2002, and have hovered in the mid-80s since that time. The Southern residents is also considered endangered in Canada.
Scientists believe a prolonged decline of the killer whales' preferred prey, Chinook salmon, disturbance from vessels, and pollution are the leading threats to the population's survival.
Goodman believes that a favorable decision by NMFS would provide solid legal grounds for a court to require Seaquarium to make other living arrangements for Lolita. Goodman also said the petition is "only coincidentally related" to the petition by the Pacific Legal Foundation seeking a complete delisting of Southern Resident whales from the Endangered Species Act. He believes the Legal Foundation's petition will be rejected.
PETA has also filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture seeking to revoke the permit under which the Seaquarium is holding Lolita. The basis for that lawsuit, Goodman said, is that the size of Lolita's pool and other specifications fall well short of federal regulations for killer whale captivity.
Howard Garrett, chairman of Orca Network, says the upcoming review by NMFS may be the best chance that Lolita has to return to her home waters. Garrett said Orca Network and Ken Balcomb's Center for Whale Research have prepared an extensive plan for rehabilitating Lolita in Kanaka Bay, on the west side of San Juan Island, and possibly returning her to her pod - though he adds that other supporters are prepared to care for Lolita "indefinitely" if necessary.
A division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, NMFS must complete its review by January of 2014, after publishing a proposed rule, expected next week, for conducting its review and accepting comments and other information from interested parties on both sides of the issue.
That still won't end the controversy. The Fisheries Service explained on its website: "By January 25, 2014, we’ll make a determination on whether the petitioned action is warranted. If we propose to include Lolita in the Southern Resident killer whale distinct population segment, that action would be subject to public comment."
For a comprehensive report on the PETA petition, see http://www.nwr.noaa.gov/protected_species/marine_mammals/cetaceans_whales_dolphins_porpoise/toothed_whales/killer_whales/southern_resident_killer_whale/90_day_finding_on_lolita_petition.html.