By David Adams
MIAMI (Reuters) - In order to meet federal safety regulations, trainers at the Miami Seaquarium will no longer perform rides with Lolita, the resident killer whale, following a federal safety investigation, the South Florida tourist attraction has announced.
The investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was looking into how the Seaquarium's marine mammal trainers work with Lolita.
Due to concern for employee safety, OHSA recently issued a citation "that requires that we remove employees from the water during show performances," the Seaquarium said in a statement on Monday.
"As a result of OSHA’s concerns (and not based on any safety incidents with Lolita), Miami Seaquarium has agreed to remove trainers from the water during show performances with Lolita," it said.
The decision also comes four months after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration classified Lolita as endangered, as her wild relatives are, opening the door to potential lawsuits. Lolita had previously been exempted from the endangered species list because of her captive status.
Last month animal rights activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Animal Legal Defense Fund said they would sue the Seaquarium for violating the Endangered Species Act if it does not improve living conditions for Lolita, in captivity for more than four decades.
The push to free Lolita has gained momentum following the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," which described the captivity of orcas and how one killed a trainer at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.
Thousands have gathered outside the beachside tourist attraction in recent months, demanding her release.
The Seaquarium decision to suspend the orca rides came as no surprise to PETA. "The handwriting was on the wall: Had the Seaquarium continued to expose trainers to the danger of direct contact with orcas, it could well have followed in SeaWorld's footsteps with the loss of human life by deeply frustrated captive marine mammals," Jared Goodman, the director of animal law for PETA, said in a statement.
Citations for employee endangerment could have exposed the Seaquarium's internal records of its handling of orcas, he said.
Lolita, a 7,000-pound (3,175 kilograms) orca was captured in 1970 about 50 miles northwest of Seattle, according to PETA.
Killer whales are highly social mammals that have no natural predators and can live to 50 to 80 years old.
The Seaquarium argues Lolita is well cared for and would face the difficult challenges of learning how to hunt and rejoin a group of wild orcas.
(Reporting By David Adams; Editing by Bill Trott)