The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) today denied a misguided request by California agribusinesses and property rights advocates to take Puget Sound’s critically endangered orcas off the endangered species list. This decision confirms that the Southern Resident orcas are unique and need continued full protection.
The decision rejects a 2012 petition by agribusiness operators from California, working closely with the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF). Their aim is to lift critical protections for a specific group of killer whales, or orcas, known as the Southern Residents, on the scientifically flawed premise that all orcas are the same. Concerned citizens from all over the country submitted more than 136,000 comments opposing the petition.
“The American public overwhelmingly supports doing everything we can to protect and recover these unique orcas,” said Steve Mashuda, an Earthjustice attorney. “It’s well past time to stop wasting resources on these distracting attempts to ignore the problem and focus on actions to recover our orcas.”
The Service’s decision comes after a thorough, year-long review of the latest scientific evidence. NMFS followed the best available science showing that Southern Residents are distinct from other populations of orcas, such as mammal-eating transient, or “Biggs,” orcas. Indeed, the most recent large study of the genetic differences between these types of orcas confirms that fish-eating resident and mammal-eating transients diverged more than 700,000 years ago
PLF’s arguments were discounted when Earthjustice litigation resulted in these Puget Sound killer whales winning Endangered Species Act protections in 2005.
Earthjustice sued to win protections after a 2001 petition by the Center for Biological Diversity to protect the killer whales was denied. The petition argued Southern Resident orcas deserve ESA protection because they are a distinct population both physically and behaviorally, and face ongoing threats.
“These killer whales are still in danger of extinction, and they desperately need the safety net of the Endangered Species Act,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center.
The Sound’s orcas, known for their intelligence, agility and playfulness, spend much of the year hunting salmon in the waters between Washington state and Canada. In the winter and spring months, they head to coastal waters where Columbia and Sacramento River Chinook can be found. These resident orca pods are the most studied and watched whales on earth, attracting tourists and scientists from around the world. Yet this critically endangered population of killer whales has been reduced to an estimated 84 individuals, decimated by reduced salmon runs, their primary prey. They’ve also been harmed by persistent toxic pollution from stormwater discharges and by acoustic pollution from ships.