PAT NEAL: Toki is free at last

It was another tough week in the news.

A 57-year-old female orca who had lived in captivity at the Miami Seaquarium since 1970 died last Friday.

Named Lolita by her captors, she was called Toki, or Tokitae and also known as Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut by the Lummi people who have spent years trying to have her released back into the Salish Sea, where her 95-year-old mother is believed to be waiting for her.

Orca are revered by the Native Americans as the reincarnated spirits of their loved ones and chiefs who have passed on.

Toki was part of a super pod of between 90 and 100 orca that represented what could have been the entire Southern Resident Orca population.

They were rounded up with the aid of explosives, speedboats and airplanes, and trapped in a 3-acre net pen at Penn Cove on Whidbey Island.

Orca families were separated.

Seven orca calves were forced into slings and loaded onto trucks to begin their lives in captivity in sea parks.

Toki was sold for about $20,000 to the Miami Seaquarium, where she lived in an 80- by 60-foot concrete pool that’s bisected by a work island for the duration of her captivity.

Toki’s partner Hugo, another captured orca, died in 1980 after repeatedly ramming his head against the side of the tank.

As a result of these captures, people realized the orca were worth money.

The state of Washington began selling $1,000 permits to capture them.

Eventually, between 275 and 307 orca were caught in British Columbia and Washington.

While there are no firm estimates on how many orcas died in the capture operations, four humans have been killed by captive orcas.

In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act banned capturing orca.

In 2018, Gov. Jay Inslee formed the Orca Task Force to save the remaining Southern Resident Orca from being starved, poisoned and rammed by ships.

Four recommendations included increasing the abundance of chinook salmon, decreasing disturbance and other risks posed by vessel traffic and noise, reducing exposure to toxic pollutants for orca and their prey, and ensuring adequate funding and accountability measures are in place to support effective recovery efforts.

Unfortunately, the Orca Task Force recommendations have not been implemented.

The co-managers of our fisheries decided they would rather have the imaginary extinct native salmon on paper than hatchery fish in the river.

Instead, we will rely on salmon habitat restoration to feed the orca — ignoring the estimated $1 billion spent on salmon restoration in Washington in the last 20 years that has failed to restore salmon.

Instead, it’s squandered on grant-sucking projects, gratuitous research and public education that attempts to spin this failure into a plea for more money.

Forget about decreasing noise and other risks to orca due to shipping.

Every year about 11,000 deep draft vessels transit the Strait of Juan de Fuca, burning bunker oil, making noise and ramming any whale unlucky enough to be sleeping on the surface.

As for poisoning the orca, we annually pump an estimated 97,000 pounds of drugs, hormones and personal care product residues in the sewage that flows through the 106 publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants into Puget Sound.

In addition, cleaning the remains of our extinct industries has been a fuse that’s worse than the bomb, spewing acidic plumes of precipitate metals, destroying entire ecosystems in the process.

Only one goal of the Orca Task Force has been achieved, funding for the Orca Task Force.

Before the orca spiral down the drain of extinction from government inaction and incompetence, maybe we should appoint another task force.

At least Toki is free at last.


Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via

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