Return of Lolita to Pacific Northwest waters? Long overdue | Editorial

We are getting closer to protecting our beloved orca whales, but there is still work to be done.

More than half of all orcas taken into captivity originated in Washington waters. There are currently 57 orcas in captivity in 14 marine parks in eight countries around the world.

Killer whale Lolita was captured in 1970 in Puget Sound before her population was listed as endangered. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries received a petition in 2013 to include captive whales as part of the southern resident killer whales endangered species listing.

As of last week, Lolita is officially on the endangered species list. But that doesn’t mean she will leave the Miami Seaquarium and return to her native Washington waters. She has spent most of her life in captivity, and NOAA argues that if released she could transmit diseases, not be able to find food for herself and have trouble integrating socially.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research and Howard Garrett of the Orca Network have devised a plan to bring Lolita home.

She would be placed in a transitional coastal sanctuary sea pen where she will be monitored by veterinary staff, taught how to eat live fish and to follow a boat, which will be used to get her used to the open ocean. Balcomb and Garrett say that if she is not ready to be released into the open water, she can stay in the bay, receive human care for the rest of her life and have the real ocean to swim in.

We think this is the next best step for Lolita. Best case scenario: after enough time and care, she is released back to her family. Worst case scenario: she has to live in a coastal sanctuary sea pen – far superior to her current living conditions.

In a timely move, Senator Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas) has proposed a ban on using whales for entertainment purposes.

Ranker, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5666, testified to the Senate’s Natural Resources and Parks Committee last week. His bill is a preemptive strike against holding, capturing or importing whales, dolphins and other porpoises in Washington for performance or entertainment.

We couldn’t agree with Ranker more when he said, “Washington is fortunate to share its waters with orcas and many other species. There is no good reason to put these animals at risk through captivity.”

We want this bill to pass. If the residents of Washington state won’t protect orca whales, who will?

— Colleen Armstrong Smith, group publisher