Puget Sound’s southern resident orcas targeted
(Susan Berta / Orca Network)
“As demonstrated by the impressive volume of public comments so far, the American public is eager to echo what the science and the law require: that this unique and critically endangered population of orcas deserves full protection,” said Steve Mashuda, an Earthjustice attorney. “We need to move past these distracting attempts to ignore the problem and focus resources on actions to recover our orcas.”
The current public comment period followed a 2012 petition by agribusiness operators from California, working closely with the Koch brothers’ sponsored 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 killer whales are the same.
These same 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.
“The PLF’s petition to NMFS was submitted within a year of the agency’s 5-year review that concluded the continued listing of the southern residents as endangered was still warranted. It’s hard to imagine much has changed since then,” noted Fred Felleman, of WAVE Consulting.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is now expected to consider the public comments and later announce a decision on the petition to delist.