State calls for endangered status for local Orca pods

Published on Thu, Mar 4, 2004 by Meg Olson

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State calls for endangered status for local Orca pods

By Meg Olson

The state department of fish and wildlife (DFW) is recommending the southern resident orca population in Puget Sound be listed as endangered. �We�ve got a declining population and there are some significant threats to them,� said DFW representative Rocky Beach.

The final Killer Whale Status Report, released by the department March 1, claims that some pods of orcas that frequent Washington waters are �in sharp decline,� due to both increased mortality and lower birth rates. Membership in the J, K, and L pods grew from 70 whales in 1974 to 98 in 1995 but has dropped back to 80, an 18 percent decline, from 1995 to 2003.

The report identifies the three biggest problems for local killer whales: less fish, more pollution and more pressure from curious humans. �The southern residents have experienced large historic declines in their main prey, salmon,� the report states. At the top of their food chain the whales accumulate marine pollutants in their blubber layer and recent studies have found levels of organo chlorine pollutants that rank the orcas as among the most highly contaminated marine mammals in the world. Growing public interest in the whales has led to more whale watching boats. �There is an increasing potential for harassment from both private and commercial sides,� Beach said. He added that acoustic issues and the threat of damage from an oil spill were also being looked at.

The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will review the recommendation April 2 and 3 and any written comments on the proposed listing, which need to be submitted before April 1. The report is available at wdfw.wa.gov.

If the commission adds the orcas to the state endangered list it would trigger the development of a state recovery plan designed to reduce threats to local orca populations.

The state listing process is separate from the federal process under the Endangered Species Act. In 2002 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) refused to list the orca populations as endangered, designating them instead as a �depleted stock,� and launching a recovery plan. �That triggers almost the same process as if they were listed as a federally endangered species,�

Beach said. In December 2003 conservation groups pushing for greater protection for the orcas won a victory when a Seattle district court judge gave NMFS 12 months to review the decision not to place the southern orca populations on the endangered list and issue a new finding. Canadian officials have already listed the whales as endangered. Beach said the state proposes to work with federal and Canadian plans to develop a coordinated approach to recovery of the orca populations. �This is an international recovery effort,� he said.