SEATTLE (AP) — A captive killer whale that has been performing for decades at the Miami Seaquarium deserves the same protection as a small population of endangered orcas that spend time in Washington state waters, the federal government announced Wednesday.
But the National Marine Fisheries Service said the whale's inclusion in the endangered listing for southern resident killer whales does not impact the animal's stay at the Florida facility where she has been since 1970.
"This is a listing decision. It is not a decision to free Lolita. It's not a decision that she should be free," said Will Stelle, regional administrator for the Fisheries Service's West Coast region.
It does not affect the conditions of the orca's captivity or care at this time, nor is the Miami Seaquarium required to do anything as a result, Stelle said. He added the agency is focused on doing what it can to recover the wild population of Puget Sound orcas, which now numbers 78.
Animal rights groups called it a victory and said the decision opens the way for them to argue that the whale's living conditions violate provisions of the federal endangered-species law.
"Now that Lolita is protected, a whole host of remedy is open to us to demand that Lolita be treated with respect," said Jessica Blome, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Lolita was 4 or 6 years old when she was legally rounded up in 1970 and later sent to the Miami facility. When the federal government protected Puget Sound orcas as endangered species in 2005, it excluded captive animals. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation and others petitioned in 2013 for Lolita to be included, and the Fisheries Service did so on Wednesday.
Activists say that she belongs in the wild, not a small pool, and should be returned to her home waters. They want her released into a protected marine pen near the San Juan Islands north of Seattle, where she would be monitored and cared for until she can gradually reconnect with other wild orcas.
But the Miami Seaquarium is not proposing to move the whale, according to Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"She's not going to be released," Robert Rose, curator for the Miami Seaquarium, reiterated Wednesday. "We're disappointed with the rule. We do not agree that she should be listed. We feel that there's flawed science there."
Rose said more efforts should be focused on the conservation of Puget Sound orcas, rather than an animal that has been well-cared-for over the past 45 years, and that releasing Lolita into the wild would not only harm her but the wild orcas, as well.
NOAA officials made clear Wednesday that they're far from weighing her release and that any future decision to release Lolita will require extensive scientific review. Such a review would take into consideration not only what's good for Lolita, but what's good for the wild population of endangered orcas, Stelle said.
Stelle added that it's not as simple as opening the gates and freeing the animal. The agency noted concerns over disease transmission and the ability of a captive animal to find food, among other worries.
"Imagine if you've been in captivity in a tightly managed environment, fed by humans for the last 40 to 45 years," he asked. "Are you ready to be released out in to the wild and fend for yourself?"
But animal activists are hopeful. They say Lolita is being kept under deplorable conditions — in a small tank that's not shaded and without other whales for companions — that would violate provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
"We hope that this listing decision will help her transition from a life of captivity to a life with her family in the wild," Blome said.