The federal government has decided to list Lolita, an orca caught 44 years ago in Penn Cove and held at Miami Seaquarium, as protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday announced the listing decision of Lolita under the same law that now protects Puget Sound’s wild southern resident killer whales.
NOAA Fisheries concluded that “captive animals such as Lolita cannot be assigned separate legal status from their wild counterparts,” according to a statement released by the agency.
The Washington-based Orca Network seeks to gain the release of the orca so that they can try to reintroduce the killer whale to the wild.
NOAA Fisheries, in the Wednesday statement, said that the listing decision does not impact the orca’s residence at Miami Seaquarium.
“Releasing a whale which has spent most of its life in captivity raises many concerns that would need to be carefully addressed,” the NOAA statement said. “These include disease transmission, the ability of released animals to adequately find food, difficulty in social integration and that behavioral patterns developed in captivity could impact wild animals.”
The NOAA statement said that previous efforts to release captive killer whales and dolphins have often been unsuccessful.
Officials at Miami Seaquarium have repeatedly said they are opposed to any effort to return Lolita to the wild.
Robert Rose, curator of the Miami Seaquarium, said he anticipates that the National Marine Fisheries Service will include Lolita in that endangered group.
“Regardless of what happens with the listing, she’s not going to be released,” Robert Rose, curator of the Miami Seaquarium, told The Associated Press last week. “We’re not going to sell her. We’re not going to release her. Period. End of story.”
Lolita is a healthy, vibrant animal, has been well cared for by the Seaquarium for 45 years and would endure more harm if she’s released into the wild, Rose said.
The Orca Network is expected to join in a federal lawsuit to try and force Lolita’s release.
“This gives us leverage,” said Howard Garrett, of the Whidbey Island-based Orca Network, of the listing decision.
Garrett said the Orca Network has picked out an undisclosed “bay within a bay” in the San Juan Island that it would like to use as an initial enclosure for the whale, should the group be able to secure its release from the Seaquarium.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.