Scientists question court decision over orca Lolita’s captivity

Marine scientists from around the world are urging a US federal court to reconsider its recent decision on Lolita, a captive orca held for decades at the Miami Seaquarium.

In January, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the Seaquarium was not violating the Endangered Species Act by keeping Lolita in captivity in an undersized tank with little social companionship.

Lolita is a member of the Southern Resident orca population, which has been listed as endangered since 2005 and now has just over 70 individuals remaining in the wild.  Initially left out of their Endangered Species Act (ESA) designation because of her confinement in captivity, Lolita was officially added to the listing in 2015, which opened new legal avenues to seek protection for her from the harm caused by captivity.

Orca Lolita
Orca Lolita at Miami Seaquarium

Lolita (also called Tokitae) was caught in 1970 during the infamous Penn Cove captures, in which more than 80 Southern Resident orcas were trapped in nets and seven were sold to marine parks.  Of the estimated 47 Southern Resident orcas who were taken captive or died during the horrific era of live captures in the 1960s and 70s, Lolita is the only one still alive.

The court is ignoring the ‘physical, psychological and behavioral injuries’ Lolita has suffered in her 45 years of captivity, say researchers.

‘What is surprising is the panel's conclusion that despite robust evidence to the contrary, these injuries do not 'pose a threat of serious harm' to Lolita,’

Marine researchers Joan Gonzalvo, Lori Marino, Sandro Mazzariol, Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara, Alison Rieser and Naomi Rose filed a legal brief together with Aquatic Animal Law Initiative of Lewis & Clark Law School, which was formed last year to provide legal aid for aquatic animals.

At Seaquarium, Lolita is kept in an oblong tank 80 feet long and 20 feet deep. The 20-foot-long orca has lived at the Miami facility since 1970.

The brief argues that the 11th Circuit created a new legal standard for captive endangered species and then failed to analyze whether Lolita's situation actually met the standard.

WDC is working to establish a sanctuary for beluga whales held in captivity – read more.

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