NOAA has agreed to conduct a status review to determine if Puget Sound’s killer whales should remain on the Endangered Species List.
The agency received a petition from the Pacific Legal Foundation, which claims that the three Southern Resident pods should be considered just a part of a larger population of orcas. According to the PLF, the Southern Residents do not meet the legal definition of “species” that qualifies them for listing:
“The term ‘species’ includes any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.”
The 62-page PLF petition (PDF 384 kb) — filed on behalf of three parties, including California farmers — argues from a carefully constructed legal analysis that says NOAA should never have listed the Southern Residents in the first place.
When I first read the petition in August, I believed it was just an effort to rehash the legal arguments that NOAA went through during the listing process, following a federal court order in 2003. But NOAA apparently sees things differently, according to a news release issued yesterday:
“NOAA said the petition presents new information from scientific journal articles about killer whale genetics, addressing issues such as how closely related this small population is to other populations, and meets the agency’s standard for accepting a petition to review.”
NOAA apparently is taking a close look at a 2010 study led by Malgorzata Pilot, which was used by the petitioners to argue that the Southern Residents are not genetically isolated. From the petition:
“The significance of the findings of Pilot et al. (2010) is threefold.
“First, they demonstrate with data that social interactions among killer whale pods do occur in the wild and they occur more frequently than has been reported (i.e., many interactions are simply ‘missed’ by human observers who cannot watch a vast area of ocean to take note of killer whale pod interactions, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year round)….
“Second, Pilot et al. (2010) explain why inbreeding is not a problem even though killer whales rarely disperse outside of natal pods….
“Third, Pilot et al. (2010) explain why mtDNA haplotypes (groups of genes that are inherited together by an organism from a single parent) can be highly divergent among ecotypes but not nuclear DNA markers….Therefore, if only mtDNA is considered in an analysis, the loss of mtDNA variation in populations (also referred to as lineage sorting) can give an erroneous appearance of populations (and putative species) being genetically isolated because they are trying to maintain taxonomic differences while at the same time ecotypes and populations are not isolated for nuclear genetic variation.”
Sorry if that’s a little technical, but it shows why NOAA decided to take up to an additional nine months to decide if the petitioners have a case based on arguments about genetic isolation. Are the Southern Residents a distinct population segment of the overall species?
The petitioners argue that NOAA improperly declared the Northern Pacific killer whales (Northern and Southern Residents) as a subspecies, making the Southern Residents a DPS of a subspecies — which, they argue, is illegal under the Endangered Species Act.
In response to NOAA’s status review, the Center for Biological Diversity, which fought the first legal battle over the listing, issued a news release saying that nothing has changed in the realm of science. The population qualifies as a DPS, because it is one of only a few to feed extensively on salmon; it has a unique dialect; and it is genetically unique.
Stated Sarah Uhlemann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity:
“It would be a tragedy to strip Washington’s most iconic species of protections. Only around 85 southern resident killer whales are left, and their Endangered Species Act listing is critical to the population’s recovery in Puget Sound.
“Nothing has changed in the science to show that orcas are faring any better or are somehow suddenly undeserving of endangered species protections. Although the agency’s decision to consider the delisting petition is unfortunate, the species’ status is unlikely to change as a result of the agency’s review, and these irreplaceable killer whales will almost certainly keep their protections.”
Other news stories on NOAA decision to review the listing:
Bill Sheets, The Herald, Everett: “Calif. farms challenge state orcas’ endangered status”
Linda Mapes, Seattle Times, “California farmers want orcas taken off endangered-species list”
Meanwhile, in terms of classifying orcas, there is an ongoing effort to include captive killer whales among the population listed as endangered. See Water Ways, Oct. 24, 2010.
And there’s a new story by Associated Press reporter Dan Joling, who writes about an effort to declare transient killer whales a new species and name them for the late Michael Bigg, a killer whale researcher who developed today’s common method for identifying individual orcas.