Orcason state endangered list

Published on Thu, Apr 8, 2004 by eg Olson

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Orcas on state endangered list

By Meg Olson

The killer whale decorates signs and buildings, plays an important role in local tribal spiritual traditions, and draws visitors to the area. It’s hard to think that this symbol of the region might disappear in the next century, but that’s what commissioners for the Washington State Fish and Wildlife Commission were asked to consider.

“Killer whales are a treasure, not just for tourists to watch but as an integral part of our community and social structure in the Pacific Northwest,” said commissioner Lily Pelly following the April 3 vote in Spokane. “I can’t imagine life without them.”

The commission voted unanimously to add resident orca populations to the state endangered list. The listing will trigger the development of a recovery plan and the allocation of extra resources to help the dwindling local orca populations bounce back.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) staff recommended the listing in a report released in March that documents a “sharp decline” in the resident orca pods J, K and L. Pod
membership has dropped 18 percent since 1995, from 98 to 80, according to the report. “The risk of extinction of the southern resident population within 100 years is highly likely,” concluded researcher Martin Taylor in a 2001 study for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The decline is the most precipitous decline on record without obvious cause, such as captures or age structure.”

The WDFW 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, with PCB levels over 500 times higher than those found in humans, which is thought to reduce fertility and make the whales more susceptible to disease. 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,” WDFW representative Rocky Beach said. He added that acoustic issues and the threat of damage from an oil spill were also being looked at.

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. Under the Marine Mammals Protection Act the whales are legally protected from intentional taking or from actions that disturb their behavior, but environmental groups have complained the act is too broad and doesn’t address many issues of habitat degradation.

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.
The state listing will trigger the development of a recovery plan in conjunction with Canadian officials, but WDFW commissioner Russ Cahill says he hopes it will more importantly highlight the seriousness of the problem at a federal level. “Washington state’s role may be small, and many of the factors in the decline of the killer whale are beyond our control, but someone has to speak up when there’s a problem,” he said.