The next step in the legal process to return Lolita (also called Tokitae) to her home waters in Washington State happened on December 6th in Florida. An appeal on the Endangered Species Act (ESA)-based lawsuit against the Miami Seaquarium, which was dismissed in June 2016, seeks to overturn the district court’s ruling on ESA violations.
The appealing parties argue that holding Lolita without the company of other orcas, in a small tank that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the federal agency responsible for ensuring marine parks meet Animal Welfare Act standards) recently acknowledged may not meet minimum size requirements for captive-held orcas, and with no protection from the sun, constitutes a violation of the ESA. The act prohibits the harm and harassment of protected species, but it’s unclear how this applies to individuals held in captivity.
Lolita is a member of the Southern Resident orca population, which has been listed as endangered since 2005 and now has just 76 individuals remaining in the wild. Initially left out of their 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 of captivity.
Lolita was captured 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. Following her addition to the ESA listing of her family, several groups filed a lawsuit claiming that the Miami Seaquarium was violating ESA protections against harm and harassment. The lawsuit was dismissed in June 2016, but appealed in July 2016, and appeal arguments were heard on December 6th, 2017.