The National Marine Fisheries Service today proposed to protect Puget Sound’s Southern Resident orcas, or killer whales, under the federal Endangered Species Act, the nation’s strongest conservation law. 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.
“This is a victory for sound science, the orcas, and the people of the Pacific Northwest,” said Brent Plater, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Today’s decision comes one year after a U.S. district court found unlawful the Bush administration’s June 25, 2002 announcement that the orcas are not significant enough to protect. NMFS will now take public comment and put final protections in place for the whales within one year.
“I’m glad NMFS has joined with the state of Washington and Canada in deciding to protect these whales,” said former Washington Secretary of State, Ralph Munro. “Like many natives of the Pacific Northwest, I have spent my life growing up with these whales, and I know that they will benefit from the protections provided by the Endangered Species Act.”
“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. “The federal government refused to protect this remarkable family of whales until the people of Puget Sound came together, and, with one voice, demanded it.”
“With only 85 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 habitats, 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.
“But just when the orcas are poised to reap the benefits of the Endangered Species Act, the developers and the politicians they give money to are proposing to repeal the law altogether,” said Plater. “We are obligated to ensure that the orcas survive for future generations, and therefore we must not allow a repeal of the protections for our whales.”
“It’s time to move away from the battle to obtain protections for the orcas and make the Endangered Species Act work for the orcas,” observed Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound. “We must work together to prevent further toxic pollution and oil spills in Puget Sound.”
“The Endangered Species Act should not be a partisan issue,” said Michael Harris of Orca Conservancy. “In fact, the ESA began under the Nixon administration, and our state in particular has a rich history of Republicans helping the whales. But now the act itself has become endangered. Almost everyone wants the best possible protection for these orcas, and that’s what the ESA does. This is a great Christmas gift for the orcas.”
“This is an important victory for orcas and the biologically rich waters they frequent in San Juan County. We must act to preserve this totemic species for our future generations,” said Stephanie Buffum, executive director of Friends of the San Juans.
Background on Southern Resident Orcas
The Puget Sound resident orcas are an extended family of whales made up of mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. They have stayed together for many years, always supportive of each other. They use a unique language to communicate with each other. They differ from many of their whale cousins in that they tend to stick together, 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, hunting as a team and taking turns babysitting the young whales. Many of these whales have lived together for decades. Several of the females are believed to have been part of the same family group for 90 years. Unfortunately they are also one of the most imperiled, which is why scientists and conservationists requested they be protected.