Orcaslisted as endangered

Published on Thu, Nov 24, 2005 by ara Nelson

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Orcas listed as endangered

By Tara Nelson

A group of killer whales that visits Washington state’s Puget Sound every summer has been listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service announced last week.

Known officially as southern resident killer whales, they were proposed more than a year ago for “threatened” status under the act. The listing is a final decision in an ongoing lawsuit filed originally in 2002 by eight environmental groups including the Seattle-based People For Puget Sound.

In 2003, the fisheries service reported that Puget Sound orca populations dropped significantly over the past six years from 98 in the late 1990s to 79 in 2001 and were in danger of extinction. But despite that evidence, the orcas were not placed under the federal Endangered Species Act because the agency claimed their existence was not “biologically significant” since other populations existed in other parts of the world.

Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Service’s Northwest Region, however, said recent information and further analysis led the agency to reverse its decision.

“Our agency has determined that the southern resident killer whale population is at risk of extinction, and should be listed as endangered,” he said. “By giving it protection under the ESA, we have a better chance of keeping this population alive for future generations.”

Mike Sato, director of education and involvement for People For Puget Sound’s North Sound office in Mount Vernon, said the whales are threatened by a number of factors including a decline in salmon, their primary food source, and poisoning from industrial pollution.

The main culprit, however, is a colorless, odorless toxin called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that accumulate both in the fat cells of whales and salmon and act to impair their immune system, he said.
As a result of poisoning by PCBs, the orcas usually die from an infection resulting from a cut or a scrape.

The Puget Sound Water Quality Action Team published a report in September of 2001 on the health of Puget Sound. The report found “surprisingly high” levels of PCBs in the blubber of transient as well as northern and southern resident orcas with transient orcas being “among the most highly contaminated marine mammals in the world.”

PCBs were commonly used as an industrial lubricant in transformers and other machinery and were banned more than 20 years ago in the United States but are still used in other parts of the world – especially developing countries like China that have lax environmental regulations.
Sato said because PCBs are carried by air and fish that migrate as far as Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, they can become a problem even in countries that have banned them.

“The big fish are picking up new as well as historical PCBs from the bottom sediments and migrating to other parts of the world,” he said. “God know where the fish go and where the whales go but they do come back.”

Another problem is that the genetic diversity among the pod is getting smaller, he said.

“One of the concerns is when you take a look at the structure of the pods and the number of males, is there’s not enough genetic diversity,” Sato said. “It’s kind of scary because you need to have enough genetic diversity in order to have a viable population.”

The ruling will potentially bring a higher level of protection by requiring that the activities of federal agencies do not harm the orcas, and will provide better protections from pollution and loss of salmon, Sato said.
“Any action taken by the federal government including dredging or changing will now have to come under what’s called a formal consultation process go to ensure their actions will not cause harm to the whales,” he said.

Sato said the ruling will also require state and federal agencies to identify threats and future recovery efforts, and determine the size of a viable population.

“They will be looking at what would it mean for the species to be recovered,” he said. “The hardest thing, though, is likely to be if the whales need so much food, which is salmon, how will that affect the fishing industry. Plus, if the salmon is laden with PCBs or toxic chemicals how can we deal with that? It’s really important to realize the point isn’t to get them listed under the act. The real point is to have them recover.”

Meanwhile, Alaska senator Ted Stevens has introduced a bill that would overturn the Magnuson Amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act that protects Puget Sound waters from oil spills by limiting the amount taker traffic in Puget Sound.

In addition, Ross Pillari, chief executive of British Petroleum, has threatened to cut production at the company’s Cherry Point facility by 10 percent if the Magnuson Amendment is not repealed.

The statement came after conservation organizations sued BP on the basis that a new pier built at the facility broke federal law because it increased the refinery’s docking capacity beyond Washington state’s demand, therby violating the Magnuson Amendment.

A 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in March 2004 ruled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must determine if BP has increased capacity in violation of the amendment but if SB 1977 passes, those capacity limits would be removed.

Approximately 600 tankers pass through Puget Sound each year, according to a 2004 report by the Washington Department of Ecology. Critics, such as Kathy Fletcher, of People for Puget Sound, say that additional tanker traffic could increase the likelihood of oil spills.

“Puget Sound is under attack by both Senator Stevens and BP,” Fletcher said. “Puget Sound is already in jeopardy, polluted with toxics, and suffering from loss of natural areas; a large oil spill could truly spell the end.”