Sound's orcas put on endangered list
BY JOHN DODGE
The animals at the top of the Puget Sound food chain landed on the federal Endangered Species Act list Tuesday.
Three families of Puget Sound orcas, totaling 89 individuals and collectively known as the southern residents, were listed as endangered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service.
It means without further measures to protect them, the orcas of Puget Sound could become extinct.
"By giving it protection under the ESA, we have a better chance of keeping this population alive for future generations," said NOAA Fisheries regional administrator Bob Lohn.
The listing comes more than four years after conservation groups first petitioned the federal government.
"It's long overdue," said Kathy Fletcher of People for Puget Sound. "Listing orca whales is kind of like listing Puget Sound as endangered. We have no more time to lose."
Fletcher said the orcas' status as an endangered species should add a sense of urgency to efforts to protect Puget Sound habitat, clean toxic contamination, prevent oil spills and recover salmon, which are a big part of the orcas' diet.
In the 2006 state Legislature, a coalition of 18 environmental groups will push for money and a cleanup plan with the goal of a healthy Puget Sound by 2020.
"The orca listing should give the Puget Sound legislation a huge push," said Susan Berta, a Whidbey Island resident and co-founder of the Orca Network, which keeps tabs on the J, K and L pods' whereabouts.
Tuesday's listing could help the killer whales on several fronts, said former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, a lifelong champion of whale conservation.
"It should mean lots more research, lots more protection for salmon and a special emphasis on cleaning up marine toxins," Munro said.
Killer whales suffer from an accumulation of toxic chemicals in the marine food chain, depleted salmon runs and a paucity of breeding adults to keep the families growing. Many of the family members were captured and hauled off to aquariums in the 1960s, a practice halted in the 1970s.
Orca numbers are so low they're vulnerable to disease or a catastrophic event, such as a major oil spill, the federal agency said in its decision to list them.
From 1996 to 2001, the Puget Sound population fell from 97 to 79, but has rebounded of late to 89.
A year ago, NOAA Fisheries was poised to list them as threatened, which is a step short of endangered. Under better conditions, the Puget Sound orcas could number 200, federal scientists estimated last year.
"I think they started to realize how fragile this population is: small and such a small number of breeding males," Berta said.
The biggest benefit of an ESA listing will be the review of Puget Sound water-related projects to make sure they won't harm orcas, said John Calambokidis, a marine mammal researcher with Olympia- based Cascadia Research.
"I'm glad to see the population increasing," Calambokidis said. "It makes me much more hopeful about the future."
NOAA Fisheries officials said the federal agency will focus its orca recovery efforts on restoring salmon runs, cleaning up toxic chemicals and reducing the effect of vessel traffic on the meandering whales, which spend much of their time in the San Juans, but occasionally venture into South Sound.