NOAA receives petition to remove Orca whales from endangered species listing

Published on Wed, Nov 28, 2012 by Ian Ferguson

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Controversy over water rights to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in California may result in a group of killer whales that summer in local waters being removed from the endangered species list.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Monday, November 26 they had begun an Endangered Species Act status review of southern resident killer whales after receiving a petition to delist the species. The petition was filed in August by the California-based Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability and two California farms, Empresas Del Bosque and Coburn Ranch.

Southern Resident killer whales inhabit Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca during the summer months, and head for open ocean in the winter. They were listed as endangered in 2005, when there were 89 southern resident killer whales. Today scientists say surveys show there are only 86 left.

According to NOAA, pods of southern resident killer whales migrate to the San Francisco Bay area to feed on Chinook salmon during the winter months. The Chinook salmon spawn in the Sacramento River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which flows into San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay.

In 2009, a NOAA biological opinion found that California water projects in the Delta jeopardize endangered species, including Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, North American green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales due to their reliance on Chinook salmon runs as a food source. Currently Chinook salmon spawn in the Sacramento River and scientists are attempting to reintroduce them into the San Joaquin River, once the southernmost Chinook salmon run in North America, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.

California has historically battled over water rights in this area because the northern portion of the state contains two-thirds of the water resources, the southern portion of the state contains two-thirds of the population, and the Delta is right in the middle.

With a rapidly growing population and limited water resources, California is increasingly possessive of its fresh water. In the 1930s, the state embarked on the massive Central Valley project – a complex network of canals, pipelines, pumping stations, dams and water storage facilities that continue to bring water to the southern half of the state. Through this system, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta supplies water to approximately 27 million people in southern California.

The same water source also irrigates farms in the San Joaquin Valley, the most concentrated agricultural area in the country. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the valley produces $26 billion in annual sales of many crops, including more than 95 percent of the national crop of artichokes, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, nectarines, olives, figs and kiwi.

In its biological opinion, NOAA stated that waterway restoration projects and freshwater restrictions would be necessary to preserve the endangered species in the waterway. NOAA said the federally mandated restrictions would involve five to seven percent of available annual water, or about 330,000 acre feet, affecting water users in the San Joaquin Valley. By decreasing the amount of water pumped out for irrigation and drinking water, NOAA aimed to keep the San Joaquin River flowing in spots where it had run dry in recent years due to diversion.

The two farms that filed the petition to delist the whales are among many in the San Joaquin Valley in central California that rely on irrigation from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. They claim the biological opinions set forth in 2009 have led to hundreds of thousands of acres of arable land going fallow, and thousands of jobs lost due to the water restrictions. They assert that southern resident killer whales aren’t a separate species from other orca populations, which have sufficient numbers worldwide to remove them from the endangered species list.

Peter Hamilton is the founding director of Lifeforce, a Vancouver-based non-profit ecology organization. He argues that the southern resident killer whales are a distinct sub-group worth protecting.

“In order to survive, the orcas need endangered species status,” he said. “There are distinct populations of orcas who do not socialize or interact with each other. Each one of these populations is at extremely low numbers that justify designating them as endangered species. It is believed when a population goes below 1,000, they may become extinct. Actually, the laws should be strengthened and properly enforced with sufficient government funding.”

In its announcement, NOAA pointed out that just because the petition is under review does not mean that a proposal to delist will necessarily follow. The agency has a year from the petition filing date to decide whether delisting is warranted. During that time, NOAA is seeking public comment and gathering all relevant information.