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Orcas Struggle For Survival Against Big Ag

Something special is swimming in Puget Sound—84 unique whales found nowhere else on earth, who might have disappeared altogether if not for Earthjustice’s work to protect them from a far-distant threat.

Early this month, the government rejected a misguided proposal to strip protections from this dwindling species: Southern Resident orca whales. Visitors to the Pacific Northwest likely know these orcas well; they attract wildlife enthusiasts from around the world with their intelligence and playful displays of agility. They also attract curious scientists—this pod of fish-eating coastal orcas is genetically distinct and isolated from its mammal-eating and offshore cousins, diverging more than 700,000 years ago.

The ill-conceived attempt to push these few animals closer to extinction was made on behalf of California industrial-scale farms by the Pacific Legal Foundation—a big-industry bosom buddy that receives funds from the infamous Koch Brothers. PLF and its clients refuse to accept that the orcas deserve the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Fortunately, science indicates otherwise.

California agribusiness has it out for these orcas because of salmon, their primary food source. In the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the main salmon-producing river system in California, endangered salmon are killed by a maze of dams, water diversions and massive pumps that export river water to industrial farms in the state. Sucking huge amounts of water out of rivers to irrigate mega-farms kills salmon, and therefore harms orcas as well. This was the government’s conclusion in 2009, following an Earthjustice lawsuit, and growers and their political allies didn’t like it.

Earthjustice litigation secured Endangered Species Act protections for the Southern Resident orcas in 2005, which has provided a powerful set of legal tools to work towards ending the various threats that plague them: decimation of salmon populations, toxic pollution and disturbance from big ships. The orca population remains in serious jeopardy. With ESA protections still in place, Earthjustice and our allies can continue the work to help this species recover, but our work has to continue to defend the protections that the orcas now enjoy.

The plight of orcas illustrates the vital importance of the ESA itself, which turns 40 later this year. The Act, and Earthjustice’s litigation under it, have saved innumerable species and the habitats they depend upon, preventing many species from going extinct altogether.

 enemies in the wild, allies in the court. (Lance Barrett-Lennard, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA)

Orcas and sea lions: enemies in the wild, allies in the court. (Lance Barrett-Lennard, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA)

The endangered Steller sea lion is another prime example. The western population of Steller sea lions in the North Pacific Ocean in Alaska has declined by 80 percent because of industrial fishing, which nets huge, unsustainable amounts of mackerel, cod and other prey that the sea lions depend on. The government instituted protections in 2010 to reduce competition between industrial fishing boats and sea lions, which industry challenged. Earthjustice, on behalf of Oceana and Greenpeace, joined the government and successfully defended the protections.

These kinds of protections, afforded by the ESA, are vital to the long-term survival of species that have been pushed towards extinction by human activity. Too many in industry and in Congress would have us believe that the ESA is no longer needed and should be gutted. We and the orcas disagree.