Permitting Update 07/12/2023
The work to move Lolita (Tokitae/Toki) from the Miami Seaquarium to a specially designed ocean habitat in Salish Sea waters where she was captured in 1970 is proceeding on all fronts, led by Friends of Toki (dba Friends of Lolita) in an unprecedented collaboration with The Dolphin Company, and with the remarkable funding commitment of Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts.
The work is concentrated in four areas: (1) care for Toki in her Miami Seaquarium pool and conditioning her for transport to Washington State and life in an ocean enclosure; (2) Tribal consultation & support and Washington State permitting for the site development of her ocean habitat; (3) federal regulatory engagement in Washington D.C (4) design, fabrication and installation of the ocean habitat enclosure and barrier net.
Preparing Toki for her transport and her move, entails increased enrichment and daily activity by and with the expert care team that has been assembled to care for her, as well as veterinary care from world class veterinarians that Friends of Toki has brought in to assess her health and provide treatment in consultation with Miami Seaquarium veterinarians. Lead veterinarian Dr. Thomas Reidarson reports that she is now in the best condition he has seen than at any time in the years he has been assessing her health, although she does have a chronic pulmonary infection for which she receives daily antibiotics. Toki has been introduced to new enrichment “toys” including artificial kelp so that she becomes comfortable with new stimuli representative of what she will experience in Washington State waters. She has also been introduced to the stretcher (fabric sling) in which she will be transported to her new ocean home. Slowly and with no stress, she will begin to touch the stretcher and subsequently practice swimming into it so that it is a comfortable and rewarding experience for her rather than one that may be frightful and may cause anxiety. This months-long, methodical process of conditioning her for transport and relocation is the best practices approach for transport and relocation.
Throughout the prior six months and continuing today, the life support system that maintains the water quality in Toki’s pool has been upgraded and dramatically improved. With a systems investment of more than $500,000 in new chillers, filter media, an ozone generator to replace chlorine, and numerous regulators and pump replacements, Toki’s water quality is the best it has been in years and is monitored daily. She receives daily exceptionally high-quality fish, and most importantly, she has a level of hands-on care, personal engagement and stimulation from her trainers that has greatly improved her energy and her overall mental and physical well-being.
Although the stadium is in poor condition and is not open to the public, the pool itself does not appear to be a risk to her and appears to not be in structural jeopardy. Advance hurricane and storm planning has been implemented by Friends of Toki and Miami Seaquarium whereby all free-standing equipment like chain-link fencing will be removed when a storm is approaching; back-up generators are on-site; special freezers and coolers for her food have been installed; and all medication for her is housed adjacent to her pool. The team of people who will remain on site and care for her throughout a storm is briefed and ready.
Consultation with the indigenous nations in Washington State to respectfully seek their support for Toki’s relocation site and the enclosure design and installation are among the most important aspects of her relocation process. Although over the years, many tribal leaders and tribal elders have discussed, planned and celebrated many elements of plans to return Toki to her birth waters, we are now initiating meetings to share the precise plans and concepts for her return.
The federal regulatory processes in Washington D.C. are being led by the law firm, Baker Botts, in conjunction with government affairs and communications consultants with expertise and experience with the Commerce Department (NOAA/NMFS) and USDA (APHIS – Animal Plant & Health Inspection Service), the regulatory agencies that have oversight responsibility for endangered species and animals on public display. Toki was captured before the adoption of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and is not covered by that act and she is no longer under a public display permit. Our attorneys and consultants are actively working through the permitting requirements for her transport and relocation. Both NMFS and APHIS will also have input into the Washington State SEPA (State Environmental Protection Act) process.
The primary expressed concerns of NMFS are the potential for pathogen transmission to other cetaceans and acoustic impact of Toki on SRKW. Experts in cetacean epidemiology and infectious disease modeling have been engaged to recommend appropriate distances for net positioning to mitigate this potential issue. Similarly, an acoustic specialist is engaged to map the distances of orca vocalizations from the preferred relocation site. With this research, Friends of Toki is accumulating the scientific data to respond to the concerns of NMFS, other regulatory agencies and the public.
Washington State approvals and permitting are very time sensitive and impact the calendar for Toki’s move. Friends of Toki has initiated project scoping and the coordinated permit process with the Governor’s Office for Regulatory Innovation & Assistance (ORIA), the one-stop process for state permitting. Through ORIA, Friends of Toki has briefed state agencies on the project and the Governor’s executive team has been briefed. 48 North Solutions has been hired to conduct all permitting studies and complete all permitting requirements. Under SEPA guidelines, documentation for the SEPA process is being expeditiously prepared.
All infrastructure to support Toki and her enclosure will be boat and barge based, with no on land structures or infrastructure for power, water or waste required on land. This design approach should facilitate permitting. The design of Toki’s enclosure and the barrier net are based on previous designs for such infrastructure and will benefit greatly from the technical advances that have been accomplished by the aquaculture industry for ocean installations. Although final contracts for the enclosure and barrier net have not been issued, preliminary design plans have been developed by the companies being considered for this work.
Work in the four areas discussed above: (1) care for Toki in her Miami Seaquarium pool and conditioning her for transport to Washington State and life in an ocean enclosure; (2) tribal consultation and Washington State permitting; (3) federal regulatory activity; and (4) design, fabrication and installation of the ocean habitat enclosure and barrier net, are all dynamic activities that are underway.
With the remarkable support of Jim Irsay, work in all four areas can be done simultaneously rather than sequentially, speeding the process appreciably. To move the process forward more quickly, every strategy for having full support of federal and state agencies, and expediting permitting is being explored.
Executive Director and co-founder, Friends of Toki
Pritam Singh, Founder, Friends of Toki