Miami Beach Commission votes unanimously to free Lolita — but it’s not happening yet

The Miami Beach Commission is trying to put the pressure on the Miami Seaquarium to release its orca whale, Lolita, to a seaside sanctuary in the Pacific Northwest.

The commission voted unanimously last week in favor of a resolution that urges the Seaquarium (operated by Palace Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Spain-based Parques Reunidos Servicios Centrales) to retire Lolita and place her in the care of the Orca Network, a non-profit in Washington State that developed an extensive Lolita retirement plan in 1995.

The resolution holds only symbolic significance, and can’t legally compel the Seaquarium to move Lolita.

The six- to eight-week plan proposed by the Orca Network would transport, rehabilitate and retire Lolita to the San Juan Islands in Washington State, near her original home in Puget Sound. The process would cost $1.5 million in private sector funding, Orca Network estimates.

“Hopefully, in the future, this animal will go on to its family in the Northwest,” said Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who sponsored the resolution and has long advocated for releasing Lolita.

But after 47 years in captivity, the stress of release could be potentially fatal for Lolita, said Andrew Hertz, president and general manager of the Seaquarium, in a letter to Miami Beach Commissioners. Hertz, who called Levine’s resolution a “political stunt,” added that the Seaqurium was not contacted at any point by the City of Miami Beach in regard to the resolution.

“There is no scientific evidence that the 50-year-old post-reproductive Lolita could survive if she were to be moved from her home at Miami Seaquarium to a sea pen or to the open waters of the Pacific Northwest,” Hertz wrote in his letter. “It would be reckless and cruel to treat her life as an experiment and jeopardize her health and safety in order to appease a fringe group.”

Lolita, who was captured in 1970 from Penn Cove in Puget Sound when she was likely 4- to 6- years old, has lived almost her entire life at the Seaquairum, performing twice a day. Due to her time in captivity, it would make it very difficult to move her, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that overseas Lolita.

Making the issue more complicated: Lolita was added to the endangered species listing for the Southern Resident killer whale in 2015, meaning any release would have to ensure minimal risk. In its ruling, National Marine Fisheries addressed the possibility moving her out of the Seaquarium.

“Any future plans to move or release Lolita would require a permit from NOAA Fisheries and would undergo rigorous scientific review. Releasing a whale that has spent most of its life in captivity raises many concerns,” the agency wrote. “Previous attempts to release captive killer whales and dolphins have often been unsuccessful and some have ended tragically with the death of the released animal.”

That’s a reference to Keiko, the killer whale in the 1993 film “Free Willy.” After nearly two decades in captivity, Keiko was released to his native Icelandic waters. He died a year after his full release, in 2003, due to his inability to assimilate to the wild population.

But Howard Garrett, co-founder and director of the Orca Network, said in a video to city commissioners that his plan, which was partially developed from working with Keiko in the early 1990s, would keep Lolita safe.

“There is no point in the plan where there is significant risk that cannot be avoided or seen and we will do all of that,” Garrett said.

The issue of whether to free Lolita has raged for decades, spurred in part by the “Blackfish” documentary in 2013, and most recently resurfaced following Hurricane Irma. The whale, who remained in her enclosure at the Miami Seaquairum on Virginia Key for the storm, could have died if Irma changed course and hit Miami directly, Levine alleged.

But Lolita has survived stronger storms that have hit Miami since her arrival at the park in 1970, including 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, from her enclosure, the park said in its post-Irma update in September.

“Once again, the pool and surrounding stadium fared very well in this storm. The roof structure over the guest seating area was recently replaced and reinforced, and it held strong without any damage,” the Seaquarium said in a statement. The park added two new 300 kilowatt generators to ensure the water in her enclosure continued to circulate and remain climate-controlled following the storm.

“Post-storm, Lolita and her companion dolphins are all in good health and doing well,” the park reported after Irma’s passage.

In a statement Tuesday, the Seaquarium added that the stress of moving Lolita to another tank was too risky.

Lolita’s enclosure, too, has been a source of debate, with animal rights groups alleging it does not meet the minimum requirements for the 22-foot-long orca. In a report released in June by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General, an audit of Lolita’s tank found that it “may not meet all space requirements defined by the agency’s [Animal Welfare Act] regulations.” No final determinations have been made since, outside of the previous ruling by the USDA in 1999 that the tank met the necessary requirements.

At the commission meeting Wednesday, Levine thanked commissioners for supporting the resolution, the culmination of seven years advocating for Lolita. On Friday, he sent letters to all the local mayors and some elected officials, as well as leaders across Florida, urging them to pass similar resolutions. He also sent a letter to Fernando Eiroa, president and CEO of parent company Parques Reunidos, urging him to move Lolita.

In the letter, Levine quoted Mahatma Gandhi: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH