Transboundary Puget Sound Orcas Win Threatened Listing

SEATTLE, Washington, December 17, 2004 (ENS) - A group of 84 killer whales that lives on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border will be proposed for a listing as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, federal fisheries officials said Thursday. These whales, known as the Southern Resident population, spend several months each year in Washington state’s Puget Sound where they are risk from pollution and vessel traffic.

At a news conference in Seattle, officials of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) said they had received a petition to list the whales under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but decided in 2002 that listing was not warranted, although they recognized that these whales were "in trouble." Commonly called killer whales, they are also called orcas, after their scientific name, Orcinus orca.

The listing decision stems from a lawsuit filed in December 2002 by Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity on behalf of Ocean Advocates, Orca Conservancy, Friends of the San Juans, People for Puget Sound, former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, Karen Munro, and Earth Island Institute.

Canadian groups Sierra Legal, the Georgia Strait Alliance and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee joined their American allies in the court challenge.

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An orca breaches in Puget Sound (Photo courtesy Center for Biological Diversity)
The conservationists' lawsuit argued that once the agency determined that this orca population is discrete and in danger of extinction, it had a legal duty to extend Endangered Species Act protection. The suit charged that the agency acted illegally by superimposing its own value judgment and deciding that the Southern Residents are insignificant.

Bob Lohn, head of the NOAA Fisheries northwest regional office, says that because of the way scientists classify all killer whales as a single world-wide species, the Southern Resident population did not meet the criterion of biological “significance” under the Endangered Species Act.

On December 17, 2003, the federal district court in Seattle agreed with the conservationists. The court overturned the NOAA Fisheries decision that found the Southern Resident orca population was not "significant" and so did not qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act. The court gave NOAA Fisheries 12 months to file a revised decision, which was announced Thursday, just in time to beat the deadline.

“Our recovery efforts are already under way for these killer whales,” said Lohn . “We've had workshops and consulted with experts on development of a conservation plan, essentially identical to the recovery plan that an ESA listing would require.” A draft of the conservation plan is expected to be available for public review by February 2005.

The conservation planning resulted from NOAA Fisheries’ designation of the Southern Residents as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in May 2003.

The whale population peaked at 97 animals in the mid-1990s and then declined to 79 in 2001. It currently stands at 84 orcas. The count does not include two calves born to the group this year. They will be officially included if they show up in the 2005 census.

In April, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission added the Southern Resident orcas to the list of state endangered species.

“This is a close-knit family of highly intelligent whales that have been living cooperatively with each other in Puget Sound for thousands of years,” said Patti Goldman, attorney with Earthjustice. “The federal government refused to protect this remarkable family of whales until the people of Puget Sound came together, and, with one voice, demanded it.”

Canadian conservationists were delighted with the listing decision. "Canadians share with our American neighbors the responsibility of protecting these magnificent animals and their habitat from various threats, including toxic pollution, boat noise and harassment and declines in their prey, primarily Chinook salmon," said Peter Ronald of the Georgia Strait Alliance.

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Orcas cross Puget Sound (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"This ESA designation will provide the strongest available protection for our imperilled orcas, requiring a comprehensive recovery plan to address these threats," Ronald said. "Both of our countries must do everything possible to reverse the decline of these the most famous whales in the world."

The Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance (ORCA) based in Friday Harbor, an island in the San Juan group on the U.S. side of the border, says the three pods spend up to eight months of the year in the San Juans.

"We are encouraged scientists are now aware of the damage that has been done to this specific orca population." says ORCA founder Mark Anderson. "However, more emphasis needs to placed on protecting these whales on a daily basis."

Anderson says ORCA commissioned three studies that show the proliferation of whale-watching boats in the area is a major factor in the whales' decline. On some days observers have counted 140 boats from dawn to dusk. Even though federal whale-watching guidelines urge watch boats to slow down, be respectful and not approach closer than 100 yards, the whales still suffer from the intrusions.

"Everyone who loves the orcas can help these whales survive. They can respect their privacy, restore them the ability to find fish, and stay off boats." says Dr. Birgit Kriete, executive director of Orca Relief. "Land based whale watching is the only sure way to do this."

The Puget Sound resident orcas are an extended family of whales made up of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, Earthjustice explains. They use a unique language to communicate with each other. They tend to stick together close to shore and eat mostly salmon, herring and other fish instead of hunting seals and other whales at sea.

These whales are among the most intelligent animals in the world, hunting as a team and taking turns babysitting the young whales. Many of these whales have lived together for decades. Several of the females are believed to have been part of the same family group for 90 years.

The proposed ESA listing determination of this population as threatened will be published in the Federal Register next week and will be open for public comment for 90 days. Two public meetings are scheduled to allow interested parties to present their views: in Seattle on February 17 and at Friday Harbor February 28.