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Group proposes enclosure for orcas in San Juan Islands

UPDATED: Mon., July 15, 2019

Associated Press

OLYMPIA – An environmental nonprofit group is hosting a series of public meetings in western Washington to discuss the possibility of creating an enclosure in the San Juan Islands for orcas retired from theme parks.

Leaders of the Whale Sanctuary Project said a cordoned-off bay or cove can also serve as a rehabilitation site if a member of the local orca population is ailing, the Northwest News Network reported.

The first of six meetings begins Tuesday night in Olympia. Other meetings will be held in Gig Harbor, Seattle, Friday Harbor and Eastsound with the final meeting being held on Lopez Island on July 24.

Multiple government bodies would be involved in permitting an orca sanctuary once the nonprofit settles on a final location to submit for approval. A spokesman for NOAA Fisheries said that they are interested but reserving judgment until more is known.

The sanctuary team has scouted locations on the Washington, British Columbia and eastern Canada coasts looking for sites of 60 to 100 aquatic acres with quiet surroundings and nearby utilities for the staff facilities.

But the idea has raised concerns from at least one orca advocacy group and a brush-off from the current owners of captive killer whales.

SeaWorld holds 20 orcas, including Corky, an orca captured off the coast of British Columbia in 1969. Miami Seaquarium has steadfastly refused entreaties to consider retiring Lolita, their sole orca, who was captured in Penn Cove on Whidbey Island in 1970.

Dr. Chris Dold, chief zoological officer for SeaWorld, said putting orcas in a sea pen “introduces a tremendous level of risk.”

“Environmental changes, weather, potential harmful algal blooms, potential infectious diseases of which our whales would not have been exposed to – not having grown up in that environment,” he said.

Donna Sandstrom, director of the Seattle-based orca advocacy group, the Whale Trail, expressed concerns about the risks of disease transmission from nonnative whales to the endangered local population.

“With all the threats facing the southern resident killer whales, putting nonnative cetaceans in the heart of their range is about the most foolhardy thing I could think of,” she said.

Sanctuary project executive director Charles Vinick said that the proposed refuge enclosure will have quarantine areas to prevent pathogens from passing back and forth.

As for the resistance from places like SeaWorld, Vinick said he is confident the attitudes of orca owners will evolve. The nonprofit’s plan is to establish their sanctuary first, then make agreements to receive suitable orcas.

“The ethic around keeping whales in captivity for performance purposes has really shifted,” Vinick said. “We have to move forward and acquire the site so there is a facility fully staffed and ready to accept a whale from a captive facility.”

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