It’s been two and a half weeks since news that the last surviving Southern Resident Killer Whale from the captures half a century ago might be able to come home after all. But will a homecoming really happen for the 57-year-old orca Lolita/Tokitae? As this report from Florida explores, there’s some controversy and confusion on that side of the country, and even if plans can be worked out, the whale’s move could be years away. In today’s Seattle Times, West Seattle-based The Whale Trail executive director Donna Sandstrom writes about lessons learned in an orca reunion with which she was involved, that of Springer, the Northern Resident orca who got lost down here. We had asked Sandstrom recently for her thoughts on the Lolita/Tokitae announcement, and here’s what she told us:
The big news in the recent release is that the Miami Seaquarium is on board, and they have found a committed funder. However, returning an orca is not as simple as the stories make it sound. Having secured these major commitments, I’d encourage the organizers to take the next most critical step and start talking with NOAA.
Based on my experience working on the Lolita project in the mid-1990s, and as a community organizer on the successful effort to return Springer to her pod in 2002, here are some things to consider.
1. If Lolita is going to be moved to a net pen in Puget Sound, NOAA Fisheries will be the decision-maker, and have ultimate authority and responsibility for the project, in consultation with other key stakeholders like Washington State and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
2. Before permitting a reintroduction or relocation to a new facility such as a net pen, NOAA and their teams will consider the benefits compared to the risk – for Lolita, for her endangered family, and for the marine ecosystem here. It’s a complex set of conditions with no easy answers. For example:
-How healthy is Lolita? Will she be able to survive the stress of the relocation, and re-adapt to life in Puget Sound?
-The southern resident orcas are critically endangered. The organizers propose to put Lolita in an open-sided net pen in Puget Sound. What is the risk of disease transmission between them and Lolita, and vice versa? Or between Lolita and other marine mammals?
-In 2017 a net pen catastrophically collapsed in Puget Sound, not far from where they propose to put Lolita. As the impacts of global warming accelerate, including increasing high tides and severe storms, how can the structural integrity of the pen, and Lolita’s safety, be ensured for as long as she might live?
-If a reintroduction is not possible, and she is “retired” permanently to a net pen in SRKW range, what would it do to her to be able to hear her family and not join them? What would that do to her family (L pod)?
For Springer, NOAA determined that there was a high likelihood of success and that it was a risk worth taking. I am not sure where that analysis will land for Lolita. But it is in everyone’s best interest – especially Lolita’s – to get that conversation going.
The federal agency made one key ruling on Lolita/Tokitae’s behalf eight years ago – ruling that she would be included in the listing of the Southern Resident Killer Whales as endangered. That announcement noted that “any future plan to move or release Lolita would require a permit from NOAA Fisheries and would undergo rigorous scientific review.”