A federal judge has ruled that a coalition of whale advocates may join a lawsuit to defend federal protection of a population of orcas — killer whales — that return every year to Puget Sound. The listing of the resident orcas — made official earlier this year — was challenged in court by a group of developers and farmers.
The whale advocates had previously sued the federal government for denying the orcas Endangered Species Act protection. A federal judge told the government to go back and base its decision on the best science we have today, rather than a scientific designation from 250 years ago that orcas worldwide are a single species.
The government then listed the orcas as endangered, given the 20 percent decline they suffered in the 1990s and the threats posed by toxic pollution, loss of salmon prey, and the risk of oil spills.
The Washington State Farm Bureau and Building Industries of Washington have challenged the ESA protection for the orcas. They assert that there is no need to protect these orcas because there are plenty of other orcas elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean.
“This region is blessed to share the inland waters with this unique and irreplaceable group of orcas,” said Patti Goldman of Earthjustice, who represented the groups in both the earlier lawsuit and the present litigation. “The Endangered Species Act offers the orcas a vision where development will be done responsibly so that the orcas will continue to share these waters with people.”
Meanwhile, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced its proposed critical habitat for the whales, which includes much of the Sound but excludes waters less than 20 feet deep. But toxics or fill dumped into near-shore waters will move with the tides into deeper waters. The shallow waters provide important habitat for herring and other important food sources for salmon, which are the orcas’ preferred prey. The habitat proposal should be expanded to protect these near-shore areas, which are vulnerable to various human activities. Public comments are now being collected. They may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.