Activists push for orcas to make endangered list

Peggy Andersen; The Associated Press
The News Tribune


Seattle, WA - There's no dispute about the state of the Puget Sound killer-whale population. It's in trouble.

The question is how far people are willing to go to protect the sleek black-and-white orcas - big-brained, top-of-the-food-chain predators whose tight-knit family groups and dialects prompt parallels to human society.

Activists are preparing to sue the government in federal court this week over its June rejection of a petition to protect the whales through the Endangered Species Act.

Federal officials say using the Marine Mammal Protection Act will do the job.

"Do these creatures need protection and do they deserve protection? Unquestionably, yes," Bob Lohn, northwest regional director of the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service, said in a recent interview.

An MMPA listing would trigger "both the fact-finding as to what the problems are and a plan to deal with those problems," Lohn said. "I think those are the essential steps and ... fundamentally the same as the ones we take under the Endangered Species Act."

Brent Plater, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity in Berkeley, Calif., which is filing the lawsuit on behalf of several environmental groups, disagrees.

"We're not saying it's going to be easy," he said. "But the government can't avoid its responsibility under the (Endangered Species) Act just because it's hard."

The Puget Sound orcas are called the southern resident community. They're part of a larger salmon-eating population of about 600 whales that live in family groups - called pods or clans - and spend summers chasing salmon in inland waterways extending from south Puget Sound to Southeast Alaska.

The local orcas have been in trouble since dozens were captured in the 1970s - an inexpert process that resulted in numerous whale deaths. Since then, the survivors have contended with declining salmon stocks, toxins, increased vessel traffic and noise pollution, including sonar testing by the region's Navy installations.

Their numbers dropped from an estimated high of about 120 in the 1960s to a low of 79 earlier this year. Three newborns have been spotted this fall, bringing the total to 82.

The births are encouraging, says Bob Lohn, northwest regional director of the Fisheries Service.

"It doesn't mean we're out of the woods, but it's a hopeful sign that perhaps some of the factors that were limiting the population are beginning to ease," he said.

One such factor is the recent shift in a 10- to 25-year weather cycle, called Pacific decadal oscillation, which has brought a resurgence of Northwest salmon stocks, Lohn said.

Last summer, Lohn's agency concluded the local orcas could become extinct over the next century. But the panel of experts could not agree on any classification that would allow endangered-species protection of the whales as a "distinct population segment."

So the listing was denied.

Lohn is seeking to declare the whales a "depleted species" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The paperwork is in NMFS's national office in Washington, D.C., and the depleted-listing proposal will likely be published in the Federal Register before year's end, Lohn said. After publication and a 30- to 60-day comment period, the proposal would go into effect, he said.

Activists consider it a poor substitute.

Both laws provide protections against killing, harassing or injuring the animals, Lohn said. Under the MMPA, polluters who harm orcas could face penalties of up to a year in prison and a $20,000 fine.

"The bottom line is that the MMPA has real teeth and can be an effective protection tool," Lohn said.


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