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  • Writer's pictureGina Scrofano

After 47 Years Of Denial, USDA Finally Acknowledges Orca Tank Might Violate Federal Law

For several years, the USDA has adamantly defended the Miami Seaquarium despite evidence that their orca tank is in violation of federal law. However, a recent USDA Audit Report documents that the Miami Seaquarium's assertions may very well have been wrong all along.

In the 2017 USDA Audit, Gil Harden (Assistant Inspector General), stated, “We determined that APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] has allowed an orca (Orcinus orca) to be kept in an enclosure which may not meet all space requirements defined by the agency’s AWA [Animal Welfare Act] regulations.”

According to APHIS regulations, the minimum horizontal dimension (MHD) of an orca tank should be two times the length of the longest ocra contained therein, allowing the orca to turn about and swim without touching any limiting lateral structure.(1)

Lolita's Size: 21 feet x 2 = 42 feet

Lolita's Tank should be at least 42 feet from wall to wall

There is a work island barrier in Lolita's tank, 35 ft from the outer wall. The structure goes all the way to the floor, preventing her from swimming under it. She cannot swim around the work island, as the tank is a mere 7'8" - 8'8" deep on each side. Thus, Lolita can only swim 35 ft from the wall to the work island. The tank is also only 20 ft at its deepest and 12 ft deep along the remaining perimeter.(2) Orcas swim hundreds of miles a day and dive as deep as 500 Feet in the wild.

Inspector Harden also stated, "...This enclosure is essentially two pools. In this scenario, the largest pool would only have an MHD of 35 feet; this falls short of the minimum requirements for an orca."

The report also includes a diagram from when the tank was audited in 1995. That report documented that the tank would be in violation unless the work island was specifically waived. That inspector noted that a waiver was issued for the work island in 1988, however, the 2017 report notes that the APHIS has since then confirmed, that waiver never existed.

The audit does not provide the tanks exact location. However, it does make reference to the fact that Miami, FL is included as a location where audits were completed. The audit also includes diagrams that are an exact match to the unique dimensions of Lolita's tank at the Miami Seaquarium.(2)

The audit also does not include a recommendation to penalize the aquarium that has been in violation of federal law for the past 47 years, nor to have Lolita relocated. It does, however, recommend that the AWA regulations regarding unique enclosures (such as Lolita's) are clarified and that the APHIS improves procedures and documentation for inspections.

Although these are relatively small steps towards a much larger goal, this is the first time the USDA has documented acknowledgment that Lolita's tank might be violating federal law, since she was first ripped from the ocean and placed in Miami Seaquarium's tiny tank nearly 50 years ago.

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(1) Proposed Standards and Regulations for Humane Handling, Care, Treatment, and Transportation of Marine Mammals, 42 Fed. Reg. 42,044, 42,046 Aug. 19, 1977 / 43 Fed. Reg. 42,200 Sept. 19, 1978

(2) Tank Dimensions


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