Contact: Shari Tarantino:
President of the Board of Directors, Orca Conservancy,
Contact: Michael Harris:
Immediate Past President and Member of the Board of Directors, Orca Conservancy, (206) 465-6692
SOUTHERN RESIDENT ORCAS TO KEEP PROTECTION UNDER ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT
NOAA Rejects Petition from California Farm Groups to Remove Puget Sound’s Killer Whales from ESA
Seattle, WA – The Endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRWKs) of the Pacific Northwest can once again spout a sigh of relief – the population will keep being protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).
NOAA Fisheries announced today that it has rejected a call from a consortium of farmers in California’s Central Valley to remove Puget Sound’s killer whales from ESA protection.
Two farm groups represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) had petitioned NOAA Fisheries a year ago to delist the killer whales, arguing that they should never have been listed because they are part of a much larger killer whale population – again, urging NOAA to rely on a taxonomy dating back to the 18th century saying that orcas, which are found in every ocean in the world, are part of one large species.
“That’s hardly ‘Best Available Science,’” said Michael Harris, Immediate Past President and Member of the Board of Directors of the Seattle-based non-profit Orca Conservancy, one of the petitioning groups advocating for ESA designation for the SRKWs in 2001 and later, after that petition was rejected, a litigant in the successful U.S. District Court against the Bush Administration that ultimately led to Puget Sound’s orcas being listed as “Endangered.”
“That was the linchpin of our argument in U.S. District Court, that the feds didn’t use the Best Available Science in rejecting our petition based on a taxonomy from 1758,” Harris continued. “And that’s basically what PLF argued again here, the orcas-are-one-species case – what scientists call ‘lumping.’ That being said, Orca Conservancy actually welcomed this challenge by the California farmers, because orca science is still emerging and it’s a good thing to keep revisiting this question from time to time. The more we learn about the Southern Residents, the more tools we’ll have to bring their numbers back.”
There’s clearly much work to do. The population currently stands at just 82 whales, the lowest number in a decade. The precipitous decline of the SRKWs from close to 100 whales down to 78 by the end of the 1990s prompted Orca Conservancy and its fellow petitioners to seek ESA protection.
The SRKWs are an extremely small, insular population that is still clearly on the brink of extinction, which would be compounded exponentially by the possibility of a mass mortality event triggered by a catastrophic oil or chemical spill. Scientists and researchers pinpoint lack of salmon, especially the SRKWs preferred diet of Chinook salmon, and generations of bioaccumulative marine toxins as the most immediate problems facing the population. NOAA Fisheries also notes vessel traffic as a potential contributor, as well.
“The only way to reverse this slide is the urgent, broad protections that only ESA can provide,” explained Orca Conservancy President Shari Tarantino. “When we first pushed for ESA protection, we got a lot of pushback, even from other orca advocacy groups, saying that it was a waste of time, that we’d get the same protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Of course, the biggest difference between ESA and MMPA is that MMPA doesn’t provide citizen oversight. People can’t sue the feds if they’re not doing right by the whales.”
“We’re thrilled by this decision,” Tarantino continued. “Hopefully we can all put this latest challenge behind us and keep moving down a path to recovery. The Southerns are in no way out of the woods. Eighty-two whales just isn’t enough.”