The National Marine Fisheries Service announced that Puget Sound's Southern Resident orcas, or killer whales, will be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. The orcas have been listed as endangered, meaning they are in danger of going extinct. The orcas declined by 20 percent over five years during the 1990s, and Endangered Species Act protection insures that NMFS will have the world's best conservation tools at its disposal as work begins to recover the whales from the brink of extinction.
The decision, announced Tuesday, comes two years after a U.S. district court found the Bush administration violated the law on June 25, 2002 when it announced that the orcas are not significant enough to protect.
"This is a close-knit family of highly intelligent whales that have been living cooperatively with each other in Puget Sound for thousands of years," said Patti Goldman, attorney with Earthjustice. "This will give us the will and the tools to take the actions that will allow them to survive."
"With only 89 Southern Resident orcas left on the planet, one major oil spill could cause them to go extinct. The habitat protection afforded them by the Endangered Species Act is critical if we are to protect the ecological integrity of our marine environment," said killer whale biologist and Northwest Director of Ocean Advocates Fred Felleman.
The Endangered Species Act is a federal law providing a safety net for wildlife, plants, and fish on the brink of extinction. Endangered Species Act protection will result in many new safeguards for the orcas, including the creation of a binding recovery plan, protection for the whales' critical habitat, and assurances that all federal projects will protect the whales before the projects can proceed. These safeguards could lead to improvements in oil spill prevention, vessel traffic control, toxic pollution, and activities that harm salmon, herring, and other fish eaten by the orcas.
"Southern Resident killer whales have been integral to the ecological, social, and economic well being of the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years," said attorney Brent Plater of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Providing the Southern Residents the protections of the Endangered Species Act ensures that we protect these whales for future generations."
"This listing is long overdue but it's the right decision," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director for People for Puget Sound, an environmental group. "We know that these whales are in serious trouble, but the good news is this will give a real boost to make sure the actions are taken to make sure that these whales survive."
Background on Southern Resident Orcas
The Puget Sound resident orcas are an extended family of whales that live together in matriarchal family units. They use a unique language to communicate with each other. They differ from transient orcas in that they tend to stick close to shore and eat mostly salmon, herring, and other fish instead of hunting seals and other whales at sea. These whales are among the most intelligent animals in the world. Unfortunately they are also one of the most imperiled, which is why scientists and conservationists requested they be protected.
The listing of the orcas under the Endangered Species Act make it only the fortieth species to be added to the list of federally protected species since the Bush administration took office. Protections were extended to all 40 species only after federal courts ordered the government to act. In spite of its steadfast opposition to protecting the orcas, the regional head of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Bob Lohn, today changed his tune and finally admitted, "By giving it protection under the ESA, we have a better chance of keeping this population alive for future generations."
Regional Contacts: Ralph Munro (360) 791-1887
Mike Sato (People for Puget Sound) (360) 336-1931
Fred Felleman (Ocean Advocates) (206) 595-3825
Stephanie Buffum (Friends of the San Juans) (360) 378-2319