A number of conservation organizations, represented by Earthjustice, intervened in the lawsuit to make sure the orca protections stayed in place. These same conservation groups, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, successfully sued the federal government to win the protections.
"With the Endangered Species Act tools in place, the orcas have hope that the causes of their decline can be addressed and they will continue to share these inland waters with the people in this region," said Steve Mashuda of Earth justice's Seattle office. Patti Goldman of Earthjustice represented the groups in the case.
The Southern Resident orca community is an extended family of whales that live in close-knit matriarchal family units for their entire lives. Since the last ice age, the Southern Residents have made their home in Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, Haro Strait, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the northwest coast, with the entire population reuniting here every summer. These whales are among the most intelligent animals in the world with their own language and greeting rituals.
"Little by little we're bolstering protections for this unique group of orcas and hopefully they'll be around for our grandchildren to enjoy," said Stephanie Buffum Field of Friends of the San Juans. "The good news is that we can save the whales if we address these threats and improve their habitat."
Only 87 orcas remain in the Southern Resident population, after declining 20 percent during the 1990's. Puget Sound's orcas have been in decline because of toxic contamination in the food chain, the decline of salmon runs that feed the orcas, and human disturbance from vessel traffic and noise. They are also threatened by disease outbreaks and oil spills.
"This week saw the extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin, the first cetacean species to be driven extinct by humans," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. "But in the United States extinction is not acceptable, and the protections of the Endangered Species Act can prevent Puget Sound's orcas from facing this same fate."
"To truly save the orcas we need to save Puget Sound," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, a group engaging citizens in Puget Sound restoration. "Now that the threats to orca protection are behind us, it's time to roll up our sleeves and work to restore Puget Sound's salmon runs, clean up toxic pollution and work to prevent oils spills."
The government also recently designated critical habitat for the orcas in and around the Sound. Conservationists were pleased that the critical habitat designation included the bulk of the inland waters but are troubled by exclusions for the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Hood Canal, military sites and shallow waters.