Last year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration brought a proposal to amend the current Endangered Species Act listing for Southern Resident killer whales to include Miami Seaquarium's Lolita as a member of her extended family.
As New Times reported last March, the National Marine Fisheries Service sought public comment as to whether Lolita should be included in the ESA listing. With the one-year comment period coming to a close January 24, Lolita will likely become protected under the ESA listing, which would mean she cannot be used in a theme park to generate revenues. If the Seaquarium goes ahead and keeps using her to entertain people for money, it could mean that further legal action may be required.
In 2005, Southern Resident killer whales were classified as endangered, And since Lolita, who is 50 years old, falls into that category, that would mean she would have to be set free and put back in Puget Sound with the rest of her family, which includes her 85-year-old mother.
This weekend, heads of the Orca Network, Dolphin Project, and PETA will be having a two-day summit to discuss plans to move forward in getting Lolita out of her tiny tank at the Seaquarium and out into the waters to be reunited with her family.
The so-called Free Lolita movement summit will start Friday at Swampspace Gallery in Miami, where the group will host a round-table discussion with members of the media.
"This is an opportunity for experts in the field who are heavily involved with the Lolita case to address questions on how to further her freedom," PETA's director of animal law, Jared Goodman, tells New Times. "There's a better chance of that happening as ever before, as opposed to before this campaign started. For the first time, we see that there are some wedges that can hopefully push the Seaquarium to do the right thing."
Lolita, among with some other orcas from the Puget Sound L-pod, was captured off the coast of Washington in 1970 when she was around 4 years old. Since then, she's been crammed in a tank at the Seaquarium, where she has performed tricks for visitors and tourists in exchange for fish.
Lolita remains the last captive surviving whale from that pod, living a solitary life in a tank that is just 35 feet wide and 80 feet across, which is below standards of keeping captive killer whales in tanks. The official requirement is that captive orcas are to be kept in tanks that are at least 48 feet all the way around.
The Free Lolita movement, which has been around for nearly two decades, has been trying to get the Seaquarium to retire Lolita and set her free from the park.
Last year's public comment request may have been the first real step to making that a reality. But progress, as it is with these kinds of things, has been slow.
"Unfortunately, the government tends to move slowly," Goodman says.
But the ESA says in a Federal Register that including Lolita as a protected member of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale Distinct Population Segment is warranted.
Free Lolita has also submitted a retirement proposal to the Seaquarium, with details on how it could gradually get Lolita out of her tank and into the ocean with her family as safely as possible.
But first things first. Lolita must be listed as "endangered."
"Once that happens," Goodman says, "we can move forward and start making real moves."