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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Orcas still ‘endangered’ as next steps contemplated

August 4th, 2013 by cdunagan

Federal biologists have decided, following a yearlong review, that the Southern Resident killer whales should remain listed as “endangered.”

A lot of folks were surprised when the National Marine Fisheries Service agreed to undertake the review, based on a delisting petition from some farmers in California’s Central Valley. As I outlined in a Water Ways post last November, the agency acknowledged that there was new scientific information about the extent to which the Puget Sound whales breed outside their group. Such information could potentially undermine the finding that the Southern Residents are a distinct population segment, a prerequisite for the endangered listing.

After the review, the federal biologists found that most of the new evidence strengthens the position that the Southern Residents — those that frequent Puget Sound — are distinct and unique in other ways essential to the listing. Here’s how I wrote about it in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription required):

“The endangered listing for the Southern Residents hinges on the legal question of whether the three pods constitute a distinct population segment of an identified species or subspecies. Agency scientists maintain that the Puget Sound whales have their own language and preferred food sources, and they don’t breed to a significant degree with other killer whales. They also meet other requirements for listing, such as having their own range of travel and not interacting with other groups of the same species.

“New evidence, however, shows that their range overlaps that of other orcas to varying degrees and that occasional external breeding takes place. Still, agency scientists conclude, new information about genetics, behavior and cultural diversity demonstrates more convincingly than ever that Southern Residents are unique and irreplaceable.”

To read the official findings, check out the Federal Register notice (PDF 270 kb) and the Status Review Update (1.1 mb).

I would speculate that taking on the yearlong review was one way for agency officials to put the new information into official context, as they see it, before a near-certain court battle ensues.

By the way, the attorney for the farmers, Damien Schiff of Pacific Legal Foundation, told me that he feels the agency sidestepped the very information that compelled it to conduct the status review:

“The decision is disappointing because of the result, but it also seems to contradict the service’s own finding … that it had substantial information that delisting may be warranted.

“They cleverly avoided that by mislabeling our information as consistent with the action they took in 2005. They never really engaged with the new evidence they were presented.”

Myoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity said her organization will defend the National Marine Fisheries Service’s findings if the case goes to court. The group led the court battle that resulted in the orcas being listed as endangered in the first place.

I asked Myoko if her group intends to push for further protections for the Southern Residents, such as expanding critical habitat into the Pacific Ocean. She confirmed that such action was a strong possibility and may not wait for the agency’s regular five-year review.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said he has presented research findings about the travels of the whales up and down the West Coast, including forays into Northern California. Recent satellite-tracking of the orcas by agency biologists confirms that their habitat should be protected along the coast to give them a better chance of survival, he said. See Water Ways, April 5, 2013.

So far, critical habitat has been designated for most of Puget Sound, but this year provides evidence that they rely on a much greater area. So far this summer, the Southern Residents have been mostly missing from the San Juan Islands, probably because of a serious decline in the chinook salmon runs returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia. This kind of extended summer absence from inland waters has never been witnessed over the past 30 years — and nobody seems to know where the orcas are now.

I asked Ken what he thought about the petition to list Lolita, also known as Tokitae, as “endangered” along with the rest of the Southern Residents, of which she is a member. Ken said he supports the idea, even if it means nothing regarding Lolita’s welfare or future. Having her included in the federally protected population may be the only way to guarantee that researchers can examine her body after she dies, he said. If nothing else, the orca’s tissues could contain information to help future generations of killer whales.

Back to the decision to keep the Southern Residents on the Endangered Species List, here are a few press releases from involved organizations:

National Marine Fisheries Service (PDF 15.1 kb)

Puget Sound Partnership

Center for Biological Diversity

Orca Conservancy (PDF 1.3 mb)

Pacific Whale Watch Association (PDF 565 kb)

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One Response to “Orcas still ‘endangered’ as next steps contemplated”

  1. cdunagan Says:

    By the way, was anybody else troubled by the photo of killer whales in Liberty Bay as used by the Associated Press to accompany a story about the endangered Southern Residents?

    The photo, taken by Meegan M. Reid of the Kitsap Sun, shows a group of transient killer whales with one breaching backwards. Of course, transients are not listed under the Endangered Species Act and played no role in this story.

    Killer whales

    Nevertheless, it was a good picture and won Meegan the AP Washington photo of the month award for July.

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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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